Online shopping is booming. Start-ups have a few ideas to make it more sustainable.
The pandemic set off a surge in online shopping — and with it an avalanche of cardboard boxes and home deliveries. Now a crop of start-ups is focused on making e-commerce more sustainable by reimagining the disposable box, delivery conventions and mailing schedules.
One such service, Olive, being rolled out Wednesday by Jet.com co-founder Nathan Faust, is partnering with more than 100 major retailers, including Anthropologie, Paige, Ray-Ban and Ugg, to consolidate home deliveries in reusable tote bags that are dropped off once a week. Other newcomers, meanwhile, offer reusable plastic mailing boxes, compostable packaging and algae-ink shipping labels.
The efforts are part of a larger shift within the retail industry to eliminate single-use cardboard and plastic as consumers increasingly weigh the environmental impacts of fast and easy shipping. Brands such as Clorox, Häagen Dazs and Seventh Generation are moving toward glass, aluminum and stainless-steel packaging that can be returned, cleaned and refilled for subsequent uses, with the help of Loop, a program introduced two years ago at the World Economic Forum.
Sustainability experts say much of the pollution associated with online shopping occurs during “last mile” delivery, that final stretch from warehouse to doorstep. But they say packaging is perhaps an easier — and more tangible — problem to solve. Consumers’ increased reliance on online shopping during the pandemic also put a spotlight on discarded cardboard piling up in recycling bins across the country. Corrugated box shipments rose 9 percent early in the pandemic as Americans stocked up on household paper, cleaning supplies and food, and they have remained elevated in the months since, according to industry data.
There is a last aspect to consider: the fact that packaging should be recycled. “There are ecodesign recipes: packaging is not spontaneously recyclable, it should be designed accordingly. It should contain only one material or be easily separable, and above all, there should be a whole collection and sorting chain available. The European Directive will encourage this by imposing a double constraint by 2030: a minimum percentage of 50% recycled materials in packs, and the impossibility to market a pack for which there is no recycling chain. These two measures involving both upstream and downstream operations will help implement a circular economy,” explain the study’s authors.
Ultimately, as it is designed to be immediately applied to brands’ needs, the study provides a broad portfolio of examples. “It is a practical, pragmatic study filled with cases brands can draw inspiration from. They can just do their shopping,” conclude Pascale Grousse and Gérald Martines.