Striking a Balance Between Sustainability and Other Priorities in Product Packaging

E-commerce is predicted to represent 14.6% of the global commerce market by 2020, reaching over $4 billion in annual sales. As e-commerce continues to grow, many consumers are raising concerns about sustainability. Sustainability initiatives are being established all over the globe, driven by governments, industries, and individual organizations.

Due to the growing complexity of the e-commerce supply chain, there isn’t one simple solution to delivering on sustainability goals and promises. A good place to start, however, is packaging.

There are a few go-to strategies for improving sustainability when it comes to both e-commerce and brick and mortal packaging:

  1. Optimizing size and filler. Everyone has heard some variation on the notorious tale of the tiny product shipped in a huge box with mountains of padding. This wasteful strategy is usually ineffective at protecting the product. Inadequate packaging can also require the use of an over box, which is often too big for the original packaging and ultimately leads to either the manufacturer or the consumer paying for the shipment of empty space. This can be avoided by striving for Amazon's SIOC ("Ships In Own Container") certification (read about the three tiers Amazon's Packaging Certification). On the other end of the spectrum, an underpackaged product breaks more easily in transit. In both cases, disposing of and reproducing the damaged product has a higher sustainability cost than replacing the inadequate packaging. “Just right” packaging should be the goal.
  2. Materials selection. Recyclable and compostable packaging materials can improve sustainability by minimizing waste.
  3. Balancing material usage with stability needs. Flimsy primary and secondary pack materials make for wobbly pallets that can’t stand up to impacts in transit. Insufficient sidewall rigidity causes stability issues, which can lead to toppling and significant losses of product, time, and money.

There are myriad other steps to be taken in an effort to shrink your carbon footprint. However, sustainability doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

“It’s important to recognize that sustainability is never the sole driving factor behind a product or packaging change,” said Michael Kuebler, Technical Directory of Smithers Pira’s North America Distribution Testing Lab. “A sustainability initiative may be written into a company’s mission statement, but the first priority will always be consumer desires, and consumers aren’t necessarily sustainable. If what the consumer wants is convenience and instant gratification in the form of single-serve packaging, that’s what the company will deliver. The packaging can be made with compostable materials, for example, but it’s misleading to claim that this is the most sustainable way to get a product to a consumer.”

Sustainable practices offer benefits beyond pure environmental sustainability. Many consumers do value sustainability and look for it when making purchases, so sustainable practices can be used in branding to attract them. Additionally, investing in optimizing packaging saves immeasurable money down the road by minimizing product damage and replacement costs along with superfluous packaging materials.

The experts at Smithers Pira are well versed in packaging practices and the e-commerce supply chain and can help you design and verify packaging that meets consumer demands as well as sustainability initiatives at all levels. To learn more, get in touch at 517-322-2400 or contact Tim Rice at