In our new, post-COVID world, concern for the environment has been unfortunately overshadowed by the threat of a global pandemic. Single-use plastics, once under fire for their detrimental effects on the natural world, have made a spectacular comeback in the name of public health. Additionally, the COVID-fueled surge of takeout orders and online shopping since March 2020 has further complicated sustainability efforts in the realm of packaging and shipping.
Data gathered by Adobe in June indicates that consumers spent around $153 billion on online purchases in the two months following the initial COVID outbreak. That number is 7% higher than total holiday sales during the 2019 season, a significant amount. Until a successful COVID-19 vaccine is produced, it looks as though online shopping trends will continue on a similar trajectory into the foreseeable future.
Yet eco-conscious retailers don’t have to compromise sustainability in the meantime. Ensuring a sustainable packing and shipping process is more important than ever, and you have plenty of tools at your disposal (pun intended).
Rethink Global Waste and Disposable Packaging
First and foremost, business owners should be aware of the true nature of the global plastic waste problem. Approximately 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually, about half of which is designed for one-time use. Known as single-use plastics (SUPs), the bulk of these end up clogging the oceans, killing wildlife, and further harming the Earth.
Approximately 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans on an annual basis, despite plenty of existing alternatives. In recent years, the demand for sustainable and eco-friendly packing alternatives has increased, especially within the foodservice industry. Various manufacturers are testing the long-term viability of compostable plastic packaging, made from plant-based materials like bamboo and hemp instead of petroleum.
But the innovations in sustainable packaging don’t stop there: Edible packaging as an alternative to single-use takeout containers is also increasing in popularity and is projected to bring in upwards of $1.3 billion by 2024.
Despite the enormity of the world’s SUP problem, however, plastic waste is just one consideration when you’re looking to cultivate greater sustainability within your company. There’s also the matter of paper to contend with — specifically, the seemingly infinite amount of cardboard boxes that ferry the world’s online orders.
Recycling as a Last Resort
With increased online ordering comes an increased demand for cardboard shipping boxes. Interestingly, shipping boxes are such a coveted commodity around the world that cardboard theft is now a million-dollar business. According to the BBC, recycled cardboard and other papers is a legitimate global industry in its own right, primarily fueled by online shopping. The bulk of recycled cardboard is pulped and processed in China, and new boxes are created.
Recycling is a cornerstone of the cardboard and paper industries. Yet, from a waste reduction standpoint, it’s crucial to remember that recycling isn’t the only way to cultivate sustainability. Under the “reduce, reuse, recycle” model, in fact, recycling is presented as the last resort option.
If you’re looking for viable ways to make the packing process more eco-friendly, you should consider adopting a similar mindset: Reduce your waste and reuse packing components, from cardboard boxes to styrofoam packing peanuts and plastic film, whenever possible. Your efforts may even help fuel an industry-wide trend towards greater sustainability, cementing your company’s place in history.
Leading By Example
And make no mistake: The push towards greater sustainability, in every aspect of our lives, is deeply rooted in our past. Early environmental advocates such as John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith helped drive sustainability efforts during England’s Industrial Revolution, for instance. Since that time, forward-thinking innovators in every industry have followed suit to protect the health of the natural world.
While sustainability standards tend to ebb and flow depending on global trends and national laws, environmental health should always be a top priority among business owners. Promoting a sustainable business model is a surefire way to increase your customer base, and ultimately your bottom line.
Indeed, protecting the planet is such an important issue that a full 73% of millennial consumers are willing to shell out more money for sustainability. In increasing numbers, young shoppers are scanning labels for “Fair Trade” and “organic” labels. They also have eyes on the packing and shipping processes and tend to support local businesses over global corporations.
Considering Transport and Logistics
Even before COVID altered the course of modern life, the call for more sustainable packing options resonated around the world. Additionally, environmental stewardship involves looking for sustainable alternatives wherever they present themselves. In the realm of Ecommerce, you should be as mindful of shipping and transport options as you are with sustainable packaging.
In the United States, the shipping process has become even more complex as COVID continues to spread. Mail delivery was already bogged down several months after the first wave of COVID and the selection of a new Postmaster General in June resulted in further delays. Business owners with a U.S. consumer base should stay on top of further developments in Ecommerce delivery, and consider the merits of selling locally, which include reduced carbon emissions.
Various data indicate that consumers are increasingly on the hunt for locally sourced products, especially food items, and the reasons are varied. Buying local helps reduce global plastic waste, for starters, as packaging is typically limited. At the very least, there are no cardboard shipping boxes or packing peanuts involved. What’s more, buying local involves a significant reduction in fossil fuel use, which may improve air quality over time. When you sell locally, it can benefit your community, your profit margin, and the planet overall.
As 21st-century soldiers on, it’s clear that we need to rethink the entire packing process, from materials used to shipping and logistical considerations. Business owners in 2020 and beyond are in a unique position to change the way we look at the packing process and help improve it for the health of the planet. When you insist on sustainable packaging and mindful, efficient freight transportation of your goods, you may be able to boost your brand image while also protecting the natural world. How’s that for a win-win?