The Rise of Reusable Packaging: Understanding the Impact & Mapping a Path to Scale
Packaging, in all its different forms, is ubiquitous across the fashion industry. This is no more evident than the single-use plastic and cardboard packaging that enables the burgeoning e-commerce market.
Fashion e-commerce makes up the largest segment of all e-commerce worldwide, with 10% annual growth expected between now and 2024. Its significance is further accentuated by the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – the closure of brick and mortar stores is pushing consumers online where sales are sky-rocketing. Coupled with the proliferation of e-commerce sales is the growth of single-use packaging used to ship these orders, demanding the extraction of virgin raw materials for their creation and generating vast quantities of waste once their purpose is fulfilled.
REUSABLE PACKAGING – AN OUTLINE
Reusable options, which aim to transform packaging from single-use to multi-use assets, are being implemented to counter the rise of single-use packaging. Rather than being disposed of after reaching the consumer, reusable packaging is returned, and recirculated over many trips. Transitioning from single-use to reusables can help to alleviate the (environmental) burden, decreasing dependence on virgin resources by lowering material production, reducing plastic waste and pollution by eliminating waste after use, as well as offering significant reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The potential reduction of GHG is thanks to the emissions associated with the processing of raw material being spread out over the many uses and lifespan of reusable packaging, in addition to a reduction in disposal emissions due to less waste being generated. Aside from the environmental benefits, the multi-use nature of reusable packaging allows greater investments to be made in the asset, with suppliers creating innovative packaging that creates a unique customer experience.
THIS STUDY – IMPACT ANALYSIS ACCOUNTING FOR KEY VARIABLES
Whilst the benefits of reusables may seem plentiful, there are a number of factors that must be considered when assessing its impact compared with the incumbent Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) packaging. The aim of this report is to bring some colour to the current discussion regarding impact; using a Fast-Track LCA methodology to account for crucial variables that influence the environmental impact of the system. For example, reusable packaging is reliant on customers returning the packaging – how then do different rates of return affect the viability of the system? Moreover, brands and retailers are becoming increasingly cognisant of the threat of single-use packaging and are integrating recycled content into their e-commerce packaging – how does that affect the comparison of single-use packaging with reusables?
THE FINDINGS OF THIS ANALYSIS
The impact analysis compared the CO2 eq emissions associated with a single-use versus reusable packaging system, accounting for key variables. In single-use LDPE mailers, over three quarters of the carbon emissions stem from the raw material processing phase – demonstrating the importance of choosing sustainable material options in the production, for example LDPE with high recycled content. However, with reusable packaging, a much greater proportion (between 40% – 60%) of the emissions stem from the transportation phase, given that the manufacturing emissions are spread over many uses. A comparison of the single-use and reusable systems on a per cycle basis can be found below:
Carbon emissions in the reusable system
- Reusable packaging has 39% fewer carbon emissions per cycle compared with a 30% recycled content LDPE mailer
- Reusable packaging has 57% fewer carbon emissions per cycle compared with a virgin LDPE mailer
Carbon emissions in the decentralised system
- Reusable packaging has 72% fewer carbon emissions per cycle when compared with a 30% recycled content LDPE mailer
- Reusable packaging has 82% fewer carbon emissions per cycle when compared with a virgin LDPE mailer
Plastic waste reduction
In both scenarios, 87% less plastic waste (by weight) is generated when using reusable mailers rather than single-use plastic mailers, regardless of the recycled content of plastic packaging.
THE PATH TO SCALE
There is a clear impact case for reusable packaging, as well as myriad associated benefits. However, specific actions must be taken by all stakeholders in the value chain to ensure that reusable packaging scales in an environmentally and economically viable manner. The path forward can be summarised by three key actions which should be pursued in parallel:
Education to maximise return rates
Communication is key. Maximising return rates requires a change in behaviour from the consumer, as such guidance must be provided. Brands and retailers should give simple and clear instructions on how to return the packaging, as well as educating consumers more broadly on the benefits of reusable packaging.
Collaboration across the value chain
Transitioning to reusable packaging is a systems-level change that requires buy-in from all stakeholders across the value chain. Brands and retailers should pilot with reusable packaging innovators and 3PL companies to test and iterate on applicable processes to fit their supply chain needs.
Innovation to optimise product and reuse process
Given the relative nascency of reusable packaging in the fashion e-commerce sector, more can be done to optimise the product and reuse process offered. Increasing the recycled content to 100%, increasing the number and types of drop-off points, and bringing all cleaning and maintenance into the distribution centre can all contribute significantly to environmental savings – further supporting the impact case for reusable packaging.