The excitement of tearing open an online order is exceedingly becoming the norm as we approach Christmas 2020 which has superseded previous years with the pandemic having increased the world’s usage of ecommerce and door to door deliveries.
But while we unquestionably click our way through Christmas, and wrap up endless amounts of gifts, what impact is this packaging truly having on the environment? And is it, truly, worth it?
Robert Lockyer, CEO and founder of Delta Global, a provider of sustainable packaging solutions for luxury retailers uncovers the true impact of the industry’s post-production waste and says that brands must make the first move to stop unnecessary waste before it lies in the hands of consumers.
In a typical year, the average UK household produces around 400kg of waste. In China, this figure is slightly higher at 460kg, and in the US, a staggering 3,000kg.
Globally, this amounts to 2.1 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) a year, of which only 16% (323 million tonnes) is recycled.
While this is an issue within itself, and one that requires collective action from both consumers and businesses to improve, another lies in what actually happens to our recycling.
The truth is, even after we believe we’ve done the right thing by putting our waste in a recycling bin, the process that takes place next isn’t always what we think. And one of the biggest reasons for this, is because what we believe to be recyclable waste, is in fact, just waste – at least by the definition of councils and disposal units.
In the fashion and beauty industry, polythene packaging is a particular problem. The material is used widely among retailers, especially those shipping online orders around the world. And generally, this is because it satisfies many of their needs. It’s cheap, readily available, robust and weather-proof.
But in its single-use plastic form, it’s also incredibly damaging to our planet, and is one of the biggest things holding our industry back from meeting sustainability targets and being on track for an environmentally friendly future.
So, what about those retailers whose polythene bags carry the recycling symbol? Well, in a study we conducted at Delta Global, 88% of the UK’s local councils, do not accept the material as a recyclable at curb-side pickup.
A similar problem is with cardboard boxes that are thought to be recyclable, but due to the plastic laminate material they are coated with, they cannot actually be recycled. And again, with boxes that contain magnetic closure systems.
When put into recycling bins, these items can cause huge issues for disposal units who then have to spend time sorting through and separating waste, when eventually, the mistaken materials end up at landfill anyway.
And now, with ecommerce sales rising as an increasing number of businesses undergo a digital transformation, adopt omnichannel approaches and seek cost-saving solutions due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, these problems will only grow and become more damaging.
What needs to be done?
Businesses need to take responsibility, instead of placing the blame with consumers and their habits, which is only delaying change and causing greater problems in the meantime.
The truth is, we cannot wait any longer, either. If we are to tackle the climate crisis before irreversible damage is caused, we, as an industry need to rethink our output in order to enable and encourage better consumption behaviours among our customers. And in terms of packaging, there are a number of ways to do just that.
This Christmas will be the first challenge for businesses. We are on course for a digital-first festive season, whereby more consumers than ever before are purchasing gifts online due to lockdown restrictions having been re-enforced around the world at the onset of the peak shopping period.
With logistical implications, such as air miles and delivery journeys, which are then doubled if items are returned, already leaving a footprint on the environment, there is a strong case for sustainable packaging to be just one way retailers can minimise their impact.
We have seen and assisted a number of businesses do this throughout 2020, which will have set them up for a sustainable Christmas, at least with regards to packaging.
For example, at the beginning of this year, we helped MATCHESFASHION turn their iconic marble boxes green through the use of a water-based finish, which eliminated the need for unnecessary and non-recyclable plastic coating, as well as an innovative magnetic removal system. This enables customers to easily remove magnets from boxes before disposing of them. As a result, the materials are completely recyclable.
Similarly, we have supported Anya Hindmarch’s sustainability goals by reducing the number of box sizes they use in order to maximise space utilisation and minimise waste. All sizes that were kept were reconstructed using a range of FSC mixed materials, as were any package inserts.
Away from our own efforts, high street retailer Primark has recently showcased a creative way to encourage shoppers to reuse their festive paper bags to wrap Christmas gifts this year, proving investment and innovation are not exclusive to the luxury market.
Creating a circular economy
On the note of reusability, creating a circular economy is something businesses have been striving to achieve for some time now. In fact, in 2017, many of the industry’s key players signed up to fashion’s circularity drive by setting their own internal targets regarding zero waste, durability, recyclability and reuse, that were to be met by 2020.
But as 2020 comes to an end, a recent status update report from the Global Fashion Agenda, suggests that the industry is still far from achieving its goals, with only a 64% success rating.
So, although many have clearly struggled, when it comes to packaging, the concept really isn’t that difficult to grasp.
It should all be about creating solutions that become a part of the product, rather than simply a container or outer shell. For instance, in luxury fashion, boxes and bags are often used as decorative ornaments, sitting proudly on display in consumers’ homes.
And if it’s not for aesthetic purposes, packaging is also kept for resale, as items with original boxes and insert hold their value better than those without.
A lot of the time, all it takes to encourage these behaviours is well designed concepts from high quality materials. In essence, boxes should be built to last.
But more can still be done. And we’re beginning to see some signs of what the future of packaging holds, with trends such as multifunctionality and greater use of recycled materials inspiring creative and innovative solutions that will help the industry combat the climate crisis.
For instance, gym apparel brand, Sweaty Betty, recently redesigned their product packaging to not be reused as simply a carrying pouch, but its zipper also doubles as a hair tie.
At present, the fashion industry alone contributes 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. These actions are just some ways in which the industry can do more than just its part in helping to reach the world’s ‘net zero by 2050’ target.
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