E-commerce packaging: sustainability moves into focus

© iStock | fizkes

E-commerce is booming. Driven not least by the pandemic and lockdown, online sales grew three times as strongly from 2019 to 2020 as in the same period of the previous year. As a central factor in the business, packaging is increasingly becoming a “hidden champion”. In addition to product protection as a central requirement, its sustainability is increasingly in focus. Consumers expect convincing solutions here. What is needed, therefore, is a clever balance. And innovations are required for which there is sufficient scope.


Packaging plays a central role in the dynamically growing online trade. It is developing into a kind of “hidden champion”. Nothing works in e-commerce without it. Optimal product protection remains the central requirement. At the same time, the issue of sustainability is becoming increasingly important. Because packaging is also the focus for consumers in online commerce – and here, sustainability in particular. So in the future it will be even more important to find the right balance between product and environmental protection. Sometimes even “simple” solutions can help. Overall, however, there is still a lot of room for innovation.


Sustainable packaging as a central factor in online shopping

The fact that sustainability is increasingly becoming a central factor for the acceptance of the service used and the packaged product is shown not least by recent surveys.

For example, a representative survey conducted by the opinion research company Civey in December 2020 shows that sustainable packaging plays an important role in online retailing for 42.7 percent of respondents. The conclusion of the survey is clear: suppliers who neglect the topic of “sustainable packaging” are actively deselected by customers.


What consumers find sustainable.

An online survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of Box Inc in April 2021 shows that for 68 percent of consumers, plastic packaging in particular conveys a sustainability negative. In their opinion, sustainable packaging should be recyclable (57 per cent) or made of paper, cardboard or corrugated board (40 per cent). More than half (53 per cent) also feel it is more sustainable if the same packaging can also be used for possible returns.


How are companies reacting?

Many shippers have already recognised the signs of the times and are reacting to the growing relevance of the issue with various measures that can often be implemented quickly.

  • Packaging with a high environmental impact is being replaced by more environmentally friendly alternatives.
  • This applies in particular, but by no means exclusively, to PVC.
  • Conventional bubble wrap is also on the avoidance list. Corn-based packaging chips and paper pads are used as alternatives. Where bubble wrap is used, attention is paid to climate-neutral production.
  • Bio-based packaging made from renewable raw materials, increasingly also of an alternative kind, such as grass cardboard, is also popular.
  • Regardless of the material used, the focus is on the recyclability of the packaging. Recyclability is mandatory.
  • The packaging communicates the use of more sustainable materials to consumers.


Room for innovation

Beyond the “simple” solutions, there is plenty of room for sustainable innovations in online retail packaging. The first step is often the consistent conversion to fibre-based packaging, as practised by Tchibo, for example.

In addition, many solutions are still in their infancy. These include intelligent reusable solutions but also the multiple use of packaging from returns.

The market for such offers is already there and it will continue to grow dynamically – in step with the booming online trade and the unabatedly growing expectations of consumers on the subject of sustainability.

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    Julia Schober