The Rise of Reusable Packaging: Understanding the Impact & Mapping a Path to Scale
The Growing Plastic Problem
Images of plastic contaminating the marine environment, causing harm to wildlife and the ecosphere are embedded in the public consciousness. There is a growing consumer focus on reducing plastics, most notably single-use plastic packaging. The sense of urgency to tackle this issue is increasing from all sectors of society. This is no different in the fashion industry – single-use packaging is ubiquitous.
From business-to-business (B2B) pallet wrap, to polybags and e-commerce packaging, plastic can be found across the whole industry. In a previously published report, ‘Polybags in the Fashion Industry’, Fashion for Good delved into the issue of polybags in the fashion industry – providing a detailed overview of the topic and evaluating the options for more sustainable alternatives. A resulting area of investigation from this research was to turn to reusable packaging in e-commerce, given its significant potential for climate and broader environmental benefits. Transitioning from single-use to reusables helps to eliminate plastic waste and pollution, as well as potentially offering significant greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions.11
Packaging, in all its many forms, accounts for a huge amount of virgin paper and plastic material usage globally. Recent figures suggest that 50% of paper and 40% of plastic produced annually is used for packaging, while packaging (across all industries) generally represents 36% of municipal solid waste. 12,13,14 The recent growth in e-commerce is set to accelerate this trend in the coming years. E-commerce has been steadily rising in the fashion sector over the last decade, and the fashion industry now finds itself as the largest e-commerce market segment.15 The fashion industry e-commerce alone is valued at over $520 billion annually and is expected to grow by almost 10% annually to over $1 trillion by 2025.16 The growth of e-commerce has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic – the closure of brick and mortar stores has pushed consumers to e-commerce. The USA experienced the same level of e-commerce growth in the second quarter of 2020 as it had over the previous 5 years.17 Again, the trend is similarly applicable within the fashion industry, with German online platform (for fashion) Zalando welcoming over 3 million new customers in the second quarter of 2020 alone.18 Accompanying the growth of e-commerce sales is the amount of single-use packaging used to ship these orders, further propelling the issue of single-use packaging into the spotlight.
As mentioned, consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of plastic on the environment, driving the demand for alternative packaging solutions. A recent survey from the International Post Corporation found that over 60% of respondents want parcels to use sustainable packaging.19 This sentiment was echoed by DHL (2019), who stated that transitioning to sustainable packaging materials is the top priority for the future logistics industry, with the implementation of reusable solutions across the industry as second.20
Brands are also becoming increasingly engaged and setting bold commitments to reduce their plastic usage in the coming years. An example of one such public commitment is The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (2018) ‘New Plastics Economy Global Commitment’, signed by H&M Group, Inditex, Stella McCartney and more, which requires brands and retailers to21,22 :
i) Take action to eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging by 2025
ii) Take action to move from single-use towards reuse models where relevant by 2025
iii) 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025
iv) Set an ambitious recycled content percentage across all plastic packaging used by 2025
The most recent Global Commitment progress report (2020) found that, whilst signatories had made significant progress on eliminating problematic or unnecessary packaging and setting ambitious recycled content targets (commitments i & iv), limited progress has been made on shifting towards reusable packaging. Specifically, reusable packaging accounts for under 2% of signatories total packaging, with just a 0.1% increase from 2019.23 However, over half (56%) of signatories reported that they have planned pilots testing reuse models in the coming year.24 As reuse models become more mainstreamed, it is crucial that supporting analysis outlining its potential impact and the associated key variables are scrutinised.
Theoretically, through retaining the functional qualities of a material, reusable models provide the opportunity to reduce the need for virgin materials and reduce the environmental footprint of materials used.25 From a business opportunity perspective, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2019) forecast that by converting just 20% of packaging to reusable systems presents a $10+ billion opportunity – as well as providing a myriad of associated benefits.26 For example, innovative reuse models can provide a unique user experience and respond to the more sophisticated customer demands found in the e-commerce driven market. The report highlighted five other opportunity areas that reusable systems contribute to27:
- it allows brands to provide customisation to individual needs
- build brand loyalty
- gather user insights
- save costs
- optimise operations.
WHAT’S BEEN DONE
There is currently a lack of case-studies providing detailed analysis on the environmental impacts of reusable packaging. Of the studies that have been done, there has been greater emphasis on those in the B2B packaging industry, demonstrating the need for enquiry on the business-to-consumer (B2C) side.28 Whilst some work has been published outlining the theoretical environmental and economic benefits of B2C reusable systems, focused analysis assessing the environmental impact of reusables versus single- use packaging, accounting for some key factors, is much needed. This type of analysis is crucial in helping brands, retailers and consumers make informed choices.29 Reusable packaging is not a silver bullet solution to all of the packaging challenges faced today – there are industries, business models and even locations that are better suited to adopting this product. Thus understanding these factors is central to propelling the scaling of reusable packaging in fashion e-commerce in a viable manner.
Closed Loop Partners’ (2021) report ‘Bringing Reusable Packaging Systems to Life’ provides detailed earnings from their multi-year reusable cup programme – sharing guideposts and best practices for implementation.30 However, as noted, reusable systems look very different across industries and contexts, highlighting the need for greater investigation in the fashion e-commerce sector. What is more, the report raises the issue of measuring impact and success; urging quantitative studies to demonstrate the net positive impact of a reusable system. This is exactly what this report aims to do – measuring the key variables that influence reusable packaging’s success to build a more complete picture of the system.
As stated, there are a number of factors that can affect the feasibility of a reusable system; from the distance the package travels from the Distribution Centre (DC) to the consumer and back, to the return rate of reusable packaging and more. Furthermore, existing analyses often focus on a comparison between reusables and one, single-use packaging alternative, usually composed of 100% virgin material. Brands and retailers are becoming more cognisant of the threat single-use plastics present, and are integrating recycled content into their packaging, or switching to cardboard packaging – how does this affect and compare to the feasibility of reusable packaging? Finally, despite the relative nascency of reusables in fashion e-commerce, there are already a few different systems being developed, commanding analysis between the two. In doing so, this report aims to bring clarity around the key factors affecting the viability of reusable packaging from an environmental impact perspective in fashion e-commerce. What is more, it provides tangible actions that stakeholders can pursue to ensure maximum effectiveness when implementing reusables.
The report will do so by following the structure presented below:
- Provide an outline of the different models used in both the single-use and reusable system, thus providing context for the comparison
- Conducting a comparison of single-use packaging versus reusable packaging in terms of environmental impact, accounting for key variables in both systems using a Fast Track LCA method
- From the environmental impact comparison, coupled with qualitative data provided by industry experts, offer key considerations for implementing reusable packaging into the fashion industry e-commerce context