This feature is part of a larger package on sustainability. The rest of the series can be found here.
An awakening in retail and packaging is underway. Some of it felt sudden — it's as if a collective conversation about straws occurred and Starbucks immediately responded by announcing it would eliminate single-use plastic straws in 28,000 stores.
Other changes have been a slow burn. In 2010, Washington D.C. placed a tax on plastic bags after The Department of Energy and Environment conducted a trash study of the city's Anacostia River and discovered that disposable plastic bags were one of its largest sources of litter. Since that time there have been similar movements in other states, including California and New York.
These moves, along with increased concern about the environment, are steadily pushing retailers and shoppers to think seriously about packaging waste — both throughout a shopping experience and during a product's lifecycle.
Is eliminating plastics the answer?
More than eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year, according to Plastic Oceans International. Additionally, the biggest market and utilization of plastics is in packaging, specifically due to single-use containers, according to a 2017 report published in Science Advances. The study discovered that, as of 2015, 9% of plastic waste had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was in landfills or the natural environment. Packaging also accounts for almost half of all plastic waste.
Grocery stores are specifically acknowledging a need to overhaul plastic packaging. In March, Trader Joe's responded to consumer pressure and announced, among other initiatives, it will sell fewer produce items with plastic packaging and will phase out single-use plastic bags. Recently, Aldi revealed it will convert 100% of packaging to reusable, recyclable or compostable materials by 2025. This is in addition to the company's pledge not to use single-use shopping bags in stores (a rule that's been in place for over four decades) and its ongoing corporate responsibility program, which recycled over 250,000 tons of store materials in 2018.
Wegmans revealed a new type of produce bag made from 100% plant-based renewable materials in 2017 and is taking steps to further reduce paper and plastic in its stores. "Our job is to make sure packaging is functional, performs as expected, and uses materials efficiently and responsibly. That leaves plenty of opportunity for exploring ways to make packaging more sustainable," Jason Wadsworth, manager of sustainability for the company, said in a statement at the time.
2019 is a defining moment
This year already feels like a turning point for other types of retailers. In January, dozens of major brands including Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever and The Body Shop partnered to introduce a reusable and refillable packaging model. This past February, Walmart announced that it is working on a plethora of initiatives to reduce the packaging waste generated by its private labels with the goal of achieving 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging for its private brands by 2025.
And, as of a few weeks ago, Unilever stated it expects to reach 50% recycled content in its packaging by the end of the year as it is adding a How2Recycle label to provide clear instructions on how packaging should be discarded. Unilever is also partnering with Walmart on a "Bring it to the Bin" program to educate shoppers regarding recycling education.
But Susan Selke, director of the school of packaging at Michigan State University, states that although there is work to be done to maximize recycling efforts, plastic in itself isn't an inherently evil product. A better way to think about the environmental impact of materials is to look at the entire system, from the container a product is in, to the pallet, to the truck and eventually to how it is warehoused.
For example, many companies may want to use glass as a potential substitute, but there are environmental considerations for that product, too. In order to make glass, "furnaces are fired with fossil fuels, and they use a lot more energy than the energy used to make the plastic," Selke said. Then, when glass is shipped, it's heavy, which generally means that there is an environmental impact associated with transportation. "Glass isn't an evil material, either. Both of these materials make sense. But, there's a lot more to it than what goes into the recycling stream or the waste stream."
Another alternative retailers are exploring is dropping packaging completely. Cosmetics retailer Lush sites its "naked" products as a way to address the problem of waste. Customers can shop for solid bars, conditioners, henna hair color and massage bars that do not have packaging elements. Where the company can't completely eliminate packaging they utilize recyclable, reusable, and compostable materials. Lush hopes other retailers adopt these practices, too, as the public becomes more aware of the environmental impact of packaging.
"When we first came to market with [a] solid shampoo bar over 20 years ago, people didn't know how to use it. Now it's going mainstream," said Dawn-Marie Barreira, sustainability and energy management specialist at Lush, in emailed comments to Retail Dive.
The retailer is also experimenting with completely plastic-free stores, dubbed Lush Naked Shops, with current locations in Milan, Berlin, and Manchester. Lush has a packaging-free bath bomb concept shop in Tokyo and also showcased new bath bombs at a pop-up at South By Southwest in Texas this March where there was no packaging or signage, according to the company. Instead, Lush has developed a solution to providing product information that typically would be found on containers: Consumers use the app, called Lush Lens, to scan items to view product information via their smartphone.
In a Lush blog post, the company revealed that 40 to 50% of a product cost goes to packaging. If retailers can think creatively about packaging alternatives or abandoning containers altogether it may add up to major cost savings.
"I think we still have a long way to go to tackle plastic pollution as a global community, and this is going to take big changes from a lot of brands to solve," said Barreira.
"Recycling is not the solution - the solution is reducing your waste. That's it."
Co-founder and CEO of By Humankind
By Humankind is another one of those brands addressing the need to drastically reduce packaging waste. The personal care retailer produces all-natural products including deodorant, mouthwash and shampoo, with an aim to reduce single-use plastic waste. Shoppers purchase one container and then continually refill it by signing up for a subscription service to replenish the product from the direct-to-consumer company.
By Humankind is focused on using sustainable materials whenever possible for its end-products, but the company is also concerned about the entire supply chain. In an interview with Retail Dive, co-founder and CEO of By Humankind, Brian Bushell, stated that reducing waste cannot rely solely on consumers' recycling efforts. "Recycling is not a sustainable solution to the global crisis of single-use plastic waste. It's totally insufficient. Recycling is not the solution — the solution is reducing your waste. That's it."
Yet, the trend toward more sustainable practices in retail is positive, he states. "We are lucky to be in a time where consumers are starting to care. When consumers start to care that's going to drive innovation on the company side," said Bushell.
The difficult case of e-commerce
A Forrester report in early 2019 stated that 58% of retail sales will be digitally impacted by 2023, meaning sales will occur entirely online or be influenced by digital technology in-store. The boost in e-commerce means shoppers are seeing the evolution of packaging objectives — whether they realize it or not.
Shoppers traditionally factor in the packaging when it comes to purchasing decisions in a store. Yet, online shoppers don't see packaging. They instead see a final product and make a decision based on the item, rather than basing it (at least partially) on the design or information placed on the product's container.
In an e-commerce situation, "The role of the package in enticing them to buy the product is not nearly as important," explains Selke. "The role of the package of getting that product to them without it breaking or being damaged in some other way is much more important."
So, while consumers may think of packaging in terms of a product they hold in their hands, it has a much longer life cycle that is deeply rooted in its supply chain. This includes the boxes that transport items which end up in homes.
Amazon is one company that is thinking about its supply chain in terms of packaging. In 2017, the e-commerce giant was utilizing algorithms and machine learning for more streamlined packaging to make improvements on efficiency and sustainability. In a meeting with vendors that year, the company reportedly asked suppliers to rethink packaging efforts for supply chain reform.
The endeavor to consolidate packaging has continued for the company, as evidenced by the announcement of Amazon Day — a delivery option that allows Prime Members to pick one day of the week for delivery of all orders. Concentrating delivery is part of a larger program that the company enacted called Shipment Zero, which holds the objective of making all Amazon shipments net zero carbon, with 50% of all shipments net zero by 2030.
Target recently revealed that it is testing a similar program where some e-commerce orders are now eligible to have multiple packages consolidated into a larger shipment. Consumers will be eligible for $1 off merchandise with qualified orders.
Those efforts demonstrate a push to combine shipments which formerly would have been sent separately. Which, in turn, saves on packaging materials and transportation, thereby driving sustainability efforts. It's easy to forget the impact of emissions produced from transporting packages, but e-commerce's growing popularity will likely only increase those emissions, adding to the already high levels of greenhouse gas emissions impacting the climate. According to CDP, which helps businesses measure and adjust for the impacts of climate change, 31 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions are produced globally each year, equivalent to about 8,139 coal power stations.
While the objective of doing away with packaging, specifically plastic packaging, may be a noble goal, the realities of how to safely transport products to consumers is terribly complex. The reality is that the product inside the package may have a more harmful environmental footprint than the container itself, Selke said.
But change is not just on the horizon, it's here. As consumers become more clued into the environmental impact of their shopping decisions, they are the best advocates for pushing change with retail companies, who can, in turn, encourage packaging advancements throughout the supply chain.
"It's been in large part pressure from major retailers that have convinced the product companies to more seriously consider the environmental impacts of the packaging choices that they are making," said Selke. "I think that's been very positive overall."
- Circular Economy