How E-Tailers Can Stay Ahead of Sustainability Goals


With the rise of e-commerce, consumers no longer feel the same drive to visit brick-and-mortar stores when what they’re looking for can be delivered right to their doors. This market change has been a boon for packaging, but one that also points the spotlight of sustainability on the industry.


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During a Pack Expo 2019 breakout session, “Meeting Sustainability Goals in the E-Commerce Channel,” John Wilson, senior marketing manager at Amcor, spoke about the influx of e-commerce and its sustainability implications. “Today, 78 million people in the U.S. live within same-day Amazon delivery zones,” says Wilson, adding that online grocery shopping is growing at more than 20 percent per year in the U.S. “We’re in a new environment, one with new challenges.” 

Jorge Izquierdo, vice president of market development at PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, agrees. “As e-commerce retail grows, supply networks become increasingly complex, prompting a change in brands’ logistical needs,” Izquierdo says. Below are a few key discussion areas around the future of sustainability and e-commerce.

Balancing Package Protection and Sustainability Goals

According to the 2018 E-Commerce: Think Inside the Box report by PMMI, e-commerce sales were estimated at $400 billion to $500 billion in 2018 and are forecast to reach nearly $700 billion by 2020. The same report found that 32 percent of Americans want sustainable packaging options. 

And yet the primary goal of a package is to protect the product inside, which begs the question of how. “Product protection remains the biggest issue in e-commerce, making it critical to select packaging formats that keep goods safe and maintain their appearance,” says Izquierdo, noting that e-commerce changes the nature of product shipment and presents a number of risks. 

Corrugated packaging has excelled at protecting products for years; as the market evolves, paper packaging manufacturers will have additional opportunities to shine.

“On the retail shelf, the product is touched six to seven times from the moment it is packed to the time the consumer takes it from the shelf. With e-commerce, this number increases to roughly 20 to 30 touches, and the risk of damage is significantly higher,” Izquierdo says.

In e-commerce, products are no longer always shipped on pallets, where padding can protect them. Instead, brands and fulfillment centers more frequently ship products loosely, as singular items, which can make them more vulnerable, Izquierdo explains. 

“As a result, die-cut inserts and patterns, grids made of cardboard or white board inserted into boxes, are growing in popularity, as they can keep products in place during the shipping process and provide an attractive way to display a box’s contents. Inserts can be plain brown or white board printed with branded imagery or product-specific information, providing another opportunity for consumer engagement,” Izquierdo says. “Companies can also use paper-based protective packaging to keep products safe throughout the shipping process.”

Brian Techter, director of packaging design and engineering at packaging solutions provider RR Donnelley, suggests that developing sustainable e-commerce packaging starts by asking a variety of questions and understanding their answers. For example, what’s the life cycle of that product? Where is it coming from? And is it being packed by a third party or at the store’s distribution center? Additionally, with sustainability as an overarching goal, Techter says he asks additional, sustainability-specific questions such as: What can we do to reduce the materials that are needed? What can we do to improve the efficiency on manufacturing so we’re using less energy and creating less waste?

“We have a significant amount of expertise in different technologies and different ways to provide that level of protection to products, but also make those protective elements more sustainable,” Techter says. “The byproduct of that is that it creates a much better presentation and better experience for the customer when they’re done unboxing that product. They’re left with a few components, molded components. They’re very tactile, they have a very tactile feel that everyone understands that they’re paper-based or they’re recyclable or biodegradable.”

Other discussion points around this topic include developing right-sized packaging to reduce waste and increase efficiency, having the product’s box serve as the primary shipping vessel and evaluating whether secondary packaging is still needed as the growth of e-tailers reshapes the entire e-commerce system.

What’s Next?

“In the future, omnichannel packaging would be the ultimate goal,” Amcor’s Wilson says. 

An omnichannel approach could help brands resolve the tension between protection, brand impact and sustainability. 

“To simplify production and save on costs long term, manufacturers can consider designing an omnichannel package that fits both retail and e-commerce,” Izquierdo says, stressing that this requires the packaging to not only have shelf appeal but also travel well. “It must look attractive in a retail setting and have the right information on display for the consumer. On the e-commerce side, consumers are making purchases without seeing the physical package firsthand, so the pressure is on brands to deliver a product true to what customers viewed and understood online.”

Luckily, he says, technologies like digital printing can help meet these needs, allowing brands to transfer fine-tuned graphics in rich colors onto corrugated boxes.

For all our coverage from the show, go to How Life Unfolds® at Pack Expo 2019.