A warehouse worker scans the barcode on a pallet of boxes wrapped in plastic
By Jeffrey White | April 22, 2020

Packaging for the Planet: Cost Savings are Just One Benefit of More Sustainable Shipment Strategies

This Earth Day, learn how – and why – companies like Zebra are prioritizing packaging reduction as global sustainability initiatives garner additional investments.

“Unboxing” – the simple act of removing a product from its packaging – has garnered so much attention in the past decade that there’s an entire YouTube genre dedicated to the mundane act. What is it about unboxing that keeps viewers tuning in? The answer depends on who you are.

From children’s toys to consumer electronics, unboxing videos have become lucrative for video producers, useful for product reviewers and surprisingly watchable for the average Joe.

For environmentalists – particularly those who rate businesses on their sustainability efforts – these videos may offer an indicator of one’s level of packaging reduction efforts.

Unpacking Today’s Packaging Practices

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), containers and packaging used to wrap or protect goods during shipping and storage generated 80.1 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2017. That accounts for 29.9 percent of all waste generated that year. To put it in perspective, there were only 11.9 billion parcels shipped in the United States during that same 12-month period. In 2020, that number is expected to climb to at least 16 billion. And the U.S. doesn’t even account for the largest single-country parcel shipping volume! (In 2017, China shipped 40.1 billion packages…nearly four times that of the U.S.)

Even more, the number of retailers who were shipping between 51-75 percent of their online orders direct to customers increased by more than five times in a one-year period, from seven percent in 2018 to 38 percent in 2019. Now that the COVID-19 outbreak has driven billions of people around the world to shop mostly online versus in stores, one can imagine how exponentially these numbers will skyrocket when we look at final 2020 reports.

Therein lies the challenge for many eco-conscious manufacturers, retailers, warehouse operators and other supply chain organizations charged with fulfilling consumer and commercial orders at record speeds. Is it possible to strategically pack and ship orders to reduce material usage without causing fulfillment delays and still please their customers? Is there a way to balance business responsibilities with environmental responsibilities?

With a steep increase in the number of goods in “immediate” demand, many items are being picked and shipped as available, leading to a natural uptick in packaging use. More packages ordered equals more shipping, and more shipping equals more emissions and more cardboard, paper and plastic materials used. With the rapid growth and acceleration of e-commerce, every company and individual needs to think about how their shipping decisions contribute to climate change. We all want it now – but at what cost?

That is one reason why Zebra – as a manufacturer and frequent shipper – is working on longer-term corporate initiatives to reduce the packaging used in our supply chain and, thus, reduce our environmental impact. This isn’t just a consumer retail dilemma.

Here are the insights that Zebra has gained (as a mass market seller/shipper) that could prove beneficial to other companies setting similar standards for environmental stewardship in their supply chains:

First Step: Customer Education

The on-demand economy has set a precedent for shipping speeds that aren’t going to be sustainable – at least not from an environmental perspective. Consumers want orders fulfilled in the shortest amount of time possible and have proved that they’re willing to pay more to get it faster. Businesses are expecting technology hardware, office equipment and other goods to be delivered within days or weeks now versus months. Yet, there are many orders that could be delayed without consequence to the customer to allow for more eco-friendly fulfillment methods to be employed by manufacturers, retailers and their supply chain partners.

That is why the responsibility is falling heavily on both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) companies to educate customers about the “green” or “sustainable” options available to them and help them determine whether fast fulfillment is truly necessary for all orders.

There’s a perception that consolidated shipping methods automatically delay delivery dates – and sometimes that may be the case. However, not every item purchased is urgently needed. Many routine restocking orders are submitted weeks in advance of their actual need-by date either in preparation for an upcoming project that won’t start for weeks (or months) or to take advantage of temporary price reductions.

In anticipatory or “stock up” buying scenarios, it would benefit all parties – and the environment – to advocate for the selection of the most sustainable shipping option. Incenting customers who are willing to wait a little bit longer for delivery to allow for further shipment consolidation and packaging reduction can be an effective option. At the same time, a concerted effort should be made to help both consumers and commercial customers weigh the pros and cons of less environmentally friendly delivery options – “send in multiple packages” – against the known business, financial and environmental gains of more efficient shipping options that allow for packaging reductions.

By turning the focus from delivery time to environmental impact, customers may gain a new perspective and make better informed decisions for purchases that aren’t immediately required. Of course, there are going to be times when expedited shipping is required and it’s going to be necessary to fulfill orders using multiple packages due to the distribution of inventory quantities across multiple warehouses, factories or stores.

Quality over Quantity: Using Better Packaging Means You Need Less of It

If you’ve been following along with the “circular economy” creation efforts put forth by both consumer and industrial companies, it’s possible that you’ve heard some people question the quality of the materials used in packaging reduction efforts or express concern about the potentially negative impact on business’ bottom lines. These inquiries are based on the assumption that all environmentally sustainable packaging options are lower quality and higher cost – the latter presumed to be caused by extensive research and development (R&D) investments and the final production costs for the materials. Blanket assumptions like this are inevitably proven wrong.

It is absolutely possible to develop robust packaging solutions that are eco-friendly yet cost effective and require minimal assembly. In fact, many alternative and sustainable shipping options are of high quality and go through rigorous cargo testing. Many abide by government regulations and industry standards.

While there is a cost for research and development (R&D), much can be mitigated by the return on investment (ROI). For example, you may be able to reduce costs by eliminating volumetric penalties (for bigger boxes that weigh less but still cost more) and optimizing palletization, which can subsequently reduce freight costs.  Of course, consolidating shipments reduces direct material costs for the shipper who, in turn, may choose to pass those savings onto customers. If the original packaging materials are reusable, the customer also saves money on returns, which further increases the ROI.

Answering the Call for Collective (Climate) Action

Given the proven business benefits and our CSR commitment, Zebra is working to innovate and implement inventive, cost-saving packaging reduction methods while exploring other ways in which we can participate in the circular economy’s waste elimination efforts. We encourage our partners and customers to consider the ecofriendly order fulfillment options we have made available and employ similar packaging reduction efforts in their own supply chains. Our sustainability subject matter experts are happy to share Zebra’s learnings and best practices with your teams and collaborate on implementations as resources allow.

We also encourage you, as consumers, to make thoughtful shipping decisions every time you make a purchase online. While the “green” option may not be clearly denoted as such at checkout, you almost always will have the option to choose longer shipping times and consolidate your shipments. You may not always have the luxury to wait, especially in the current environment. Many are already experiencing significant purchasing and fulfillment delays and must rush-ship items when they do become available. But it can’t hurt to consider the environmental impact more often, even now.

Corporate Social Responsibility, Retail, Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics, Warehouse and Distribution,

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