This feature is part of a larger Retail Dive package on sustainability. The rest of the series can be found here.
An awakening in retail and packaging is underway. Some of it feels sudden — as if a collective conversation about straws had 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 fee 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 increasing concern about the environment, are steadily pushing retailers and shoppers to think seriously about packaging waste — both throughout the 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, 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% incinerated and 79% landfilled or in the natural environment. Packaging 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 by announcing, among other initiatives, its intent to sell fewer produce items with plastic packaging and 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 announced that it expects to reach 50% recycled content in its packaging by the end of the year with the addition of a How2Recycle label providing 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 on recycling.
But Susan Selke, director of the school of packaging at Michigan State University, maintains that while there's work to be done in maximizing recycling efforts, plastic in itself isn't inherently evil. 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 instance, while many companies may want to use glass as a potential substitute, that material also carries its own environmental considerations. 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. The weight of glass when being transported also merits its own impact on the environment. "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 cites its "naked" products as a way to address waste. Customers can shop for solid bars, conditioners, henna hair color and massage bars that don't have packaging elements. Where the company can't completely eliminate packaging, they opt for recyclable, reusable and compostable materials. Lush hopes other retailers will adopt these practices as the public becomes more aware of the environmental repercussions 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, according to the company, there was no packaging or signage. Instead, Lush has developed a alternative to providing product information on containers: Consumers scan items with the Lush Lens app to view product information via their smartphone.
In a Lush blog post, the company revealed that 40 to 50% of a product's cost goes toward its 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 brand addressing the need to drastically reduce packaging waste. The personal care retailer produces all-natural products — including deodorant, mouthwash and shampoo — with an aim of reducing single-use plastic waste. Shoppers purchase one container and then continually refill it by signing up for a subscription service from the direct-to-consumer company to replenish the product.
By Humankind prioritizes 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, Brian Bushell, co-founder and CEO of By Humankind, noted that waste reduction cannot rely solely on consumers' recycling efforts.
"Recycling is not a sustainable solution to the global crisis of single-use plastic waste," he said. "It's totally insufficient. Recycling is not the solution — the solution is reducing your waste. That's it."
Still, the trend toward more sustainable practices in retail is positive, says Bushell: "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."
The difficult case of e-commerce
A Forrester report from early 2019 reveals that 58% of retail sales will be digitally impacted by 2023, meaning sales will take place entirely online or be influenced by digital technology in-store. The boost in e-commerce means shoppers are witnessing the evolution of packaging objectives — whether they realize it or not.
Shoppers traditionally factor in packaging when it comes to purchasing decisions in a store. But online shoppers don't see packaging — instead, they view a final product and make a decision based on the item, rather than basing their choice (at least partially) on the design or information 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," explained Selke. "The role of the package in 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 considering its supply chain in terms of packaging. In 2017, the e-commerce giant utilized 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 the company implemented called Shipment Zero, which aims to make 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.
These efforts demonstrate a push to combine shipments which would otherwise 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 already-ballooning levels of greenhouse gas emissions. According to CDP, which helps businesses measure and adjust for the effects of climate change, 31 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions are produced globally each year — the equivalent of approximately 8,139 coal power stations.
While the objective of doing away with packaging — specifically plastic packaging — may be a noble goal, the realities of safely transporting products to consumers is profoundly complex. The fact is, the product inside the package may have a more harmful environmental footprint than the container itself, Selke said.
But change isn't just on the horizon — it's already here. As consumers grow more attuned to the environmental impact of their shopping decisions, they become the best advocates for pushing change with retail companies — which, in turn, can 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