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The Trials of Packaging for E-Commerce

Packaging for e-commerce may well look different from that of the traditional retailer. And lucky that it is, given commerce sales grew in the U.S. at 14.6% in 2015, according to Internet Retailer. 

The Packaging Digest references a paper by Ameripen called “Optimizing Packaging for an E-commerce World,” which says that even though consumers don’t really differentiate between the various distribution channels that their packaging should reflect those differences.

“Opportunities to invest in further development of the packaging supply chain for e-commerce and subsequently omni-commerce scan the breadth of distribution channel and solutions will come only through industry collaboration and transparency,” says the 15-page White Paper issued January.

According to the authors Bob Lilienfeld of Ameripen Kyla Fisher of Three Peaks Sustainability, the packaging must demonstrate a commitment toward sustainability. “(T)he industry is not fully discussing the fact that you must look at the economic, environmental and social impact of both the product and the packaging, including the primary, cushioning and transport components,” Liliefeld told Packaging Digest.

The perception is that e-commerce uses excessive packaging, adds Fisher, in the same story. But she says that more study is needed here — that the disposal of packaging has shifted from retailers to consumers. To that end, the authors feel that the outcomes depend on the variables used to assess the data and that such measurements should extend for the entire product cycle.

Basically, the authors told the news digest that any evaluation begins product containment and stretches through protection, storage, delivery and end-of-life. For example, Lilienfeld told the digest to compare packaging that may be fully recycled or compostable with packaging that may not be as “sustainable” but which arrives in perfect condition at the home.

“The second is more sustainable from a big picture perspective—which is the one that drives potential environmental impacts,” says Lilienfeld, to the digest. That’s because it can be re-used.

Another thing to look at, says Packaging Digest, is that the e-commerce return rates are 20-30 percent, which is considerably more than the 9% return rates at traditional retailers. That’s one critical reason why e-commerce packaging is more durable, given that it may have to make a round-trip. That also means there might be more “touch points,” which translates into greater potential damages. That would then limit the possibility of such packaging be re-used.

Fisher points out that certain products have higher return rates and that the designers of the goods need to make their packaging accordingly. That still means that 70-80 percent of all packaging — that which is not returned to the e-commerce outlet — has excessive packaging, which would then be considered wasteful. The key is to pin down what items often get returned and what ones do not.

“Partially in response to this, as well as consumer interest in recyclable and renewable materials, we’re seeing the emergence of new materials such as molded pulp, jute and films,” Fisher told the digest. “As these materials enter the mainstream, anticipating and responding to them will be key to recovery. This is something both designers and recyclers will need to collaborate on.”

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