Evolution of e-commerce in 25 years: towards sustainable packaging

Gavin Mounce, e-commerce Design Manager at DS Smith shares his thoughts on the importance of sustainability in this rapidly growing channel and what part the creative community have to play in shaping the future and helping to protect our environment.

5 easys to peak season - DS Smith Packaging

 “Waste and pollution are largely a result of the way we design things? Waste and pollution are not accidents, but the consequences of decisions made at the design stage, where around 80% of environmental impacts are determined.” Ellen Macarthur Foundation

You only have to read a statement like this to understand the important responsibility we have as packaging designers. We make decisions that may seem small and confined to our office or manufacturing site, but they are far reaching and long lasting, adding up to have a tremendous effect on the future of our environment.

How has e-commerce packaging design evolved to become more sustainable?

It has been over 25 years since I first started as a home delivery and e-commerce designer. Looking back I can see how the end users expectations have evolved, which has not only driven development in design, but also the materials and machinery used to make them.

One of the most critical elements in this evolution towards greater sustainability is the development of testing for supply chain suitability. The reason this has had such an influence on e-commerce packaging is that in the early days, there was little to no knowledge for designers of what happened during transit. The only way to see if a pack was suitable for the supply chain, was to send it by courier and see what happened when it emerged at the destination. Did the person receiving the parcel take images, why had two identical parcels received different levels of damage and what part of the supply chain did this feature fail?

Making the unknown known was why the DISCSTM (named after the types of testing - Drop, Impact, Shock, Crush, Shake) process and laboratories were created. It allowed thousands of tests to be run, which supported the growth of our knowledge and insights, which in turn then allowed us to develop channel specific performance solutions. The new designs developed using this technology ensured that lighter weight materials could be used and still provide the same, if not increased performance in the supply chain.

We know that it is not only the design that has evolved, there has been many changes within the manufacturing processes to improve sustainability. One design that stands out for me was created approximately 30 years ago and as a testament to its design, still today, hundreds of millions are being used annually. Due to innovation and developments in the manufacturing process, this simple folder design has become more sustainable by seeing a 32% decrease in paper weight and doubled the number cut in one pass during manufacturing. This not only reduces the amount of raw material required to produce the design, but also CO2 from the delivery vehicles and energy used to power the machines.

Timeline graphic of the evolution of 25 years of E-commerce packaging 


What new design features have been incorporated due to this evolution?

This technology enabled us as designers to view up close what really happened at every step of the supply chain and saw the introduction of a number of new features. Webbed corners, waste used as additional protection, or to reinforce weak points, secure and returnable closures that required no adhesive tapes and paper alternatives to retention films are just a few. Whilst these evolutions enabled new design features, it also allowed us to fine tune, develop and understand previous ones like perforated multi-depth cases. Just how much difference did the perforations reduce the performance of the pack and was the reduction of void fill or volumetric capacity enough to offset the increased material requirements. This ability to test, whilst also having the experience and tools, means we can evaluate without prejudice which one is the most sustainable solution.

What are the advantages of designing “sustainable packaging”?

First of all, it’s important to highlight, that the days of making a pack from recycled paper and labelling it as environmentally friendly are long gone. Sustainable packaging solutions mean so much more and can cover everything from sourcing of raw materials, to right size designs, volumetric size during transit and ease of recyclability.

Beyond the most obvious advantage of being better for the environment, sustainable packaging can also provide an enhanced customer experience, support reductions in costs, CO2 emissions and energy usage. There really is no negative to choosing a sustainable packaging solution, only advantages.

What does the future look like for e-commerce packaging and sustainability?

Customer demand and needs have already started to go beyond that of the structural design and print, with a move deeper into materials, supply chain testing and circularity. Although home delivery packaging has greatly evolved over the past 25 years and even more rapidly in the past five years, there are still no signs of innovation slowing down.

Graphic: the evolution of E-commerce packaging. 5 steps to market leading solutions

The increase of customers wanting their ordered goods when, where and how they want, means the future will need holistic, agile and circular packaging solutions that fix the pain points closer to the source. No single design, material or process will be the solution to solve all issues, but manufacturers using a combination of their innovations, supply chain understanding and tools will ensure they can apply the right solution to the problem.

Recently, there has been a great shift in focus from just the physical pack design, to now one where we develop end to end supply chain solutions. Our recently introduced Circular Design Principles are a great example of supporting this new mind set for our designers and ensuring that the optimal amount of material is used to safely deliver the product, whilst also being kerbside recyclable and ensuring recovery of as much fibre as possible.

You may think that as an individual designer you do not have the ability to make a big change on your own, but as highlighted earlier, 80% of environmental impacts are made at the design stage. This means the key to sustainability is not only a change of mindset on how we design packaging , but also in our numbers, as small changes today made by many, result in big differences tomorrow.”