Amazon’s might just be the most widely recognized packages on the planet. Each day the e-commerce giant’s smile boxes are shipped to doorsteps all over the world. In the U.S., shoppers in major metropolitan cities can order and get their packages the same day so they don’t have to waste time shopping in real life.
But what effect is Amazon having on the environment?
“Online shopping has just become ubiquitous and the go-to nowadays,” said Deborah Castro, a teacher in Costa Mesa, Calif. “As far as sustainability, I think about that a lot. But I continued to use Amazon anyway. A few years ago, I started buying everything from there.”
And Castro isn’t the only one. The company keeps breaking records for how many people shop on Amazon.com, currently more than 300 million. Last year, Amazon shipped more than 5 billion items through Amazon Prime, its paid subscription service, which entitles members to special benefits, like faster service. Earlier this year, Amazon said it had surpassed 100 million Prime members. This year’s Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving dedicated to online shopping, turned out to be the single biggest shopping day in Amazon’s history.
As part of its sustainability efforts, Amazon started the Frustration-Free Packaging Program in 2008. Earlier this year, it added the Vendor Packaging Initiative to the program. As part of the initiative, Amazon vendors in North America and Europe can arrange for items to be shipped in their original boxes — without an Amazon over box, eliminating extra cardboard. Amazon gives each vendor $1 per package mailed without the extra box as an incentive to participate in the program.
A representative from Amazon said a major component of the program is “right-sizing” shipments, or making sure items are mailed in boxes that don’t use excess cardboard, ending the practice of shipping dead air.
Amazon shoppers can also opt for goods to be mailed in as few packages as possible during the checkout process to reduce shipping volume. Or, opt for no additional packaging, such as bubble wrap or packaging paper. In addition, many packages are mailed in paper or plastic mailers to save even more space.
Fewer outer boxes, smaller boxes and less packaging materials in general has helped Amazon avoid using 500 million cardboard boxes and reduce the amount of packaging materials used in the last 10 years by 244,000 tons, according to the company.
Efforts have really ramped up in the last few years as shoppers become more environmentally conscious. In 2017 alone, Amazon delivered 120 million packages through its Frustration-Free Packaging Program, avoiding the use of another 305 million shipping boxes in the process and reducing waste by 16 percent.
“Consumers are increasingly concerned about sustainability,” said Sophie Marchessou, a partner at McKinsey. But Marchessou pointed out that there’s also a lack of trust between consumers and retailers, including in fashion companies. Consumers are pushing for more transparency in supply chains as a result.
“I would like to think that the [cardboard] boxes are made out of recycled materials, but they’re probably not,” said Lucy Huang, who regularly shops online. “I do recycle them, but it’s a lot of packaging.”
In response to shoppers like Huang, Amazon launched Amazon Second Chance, a web site that helps shoppers learn how to minimize their impact on the earth, in November. The digital tool includes suggestions on ways to trade in old items for gift cards and how to recycle.
Still, according to the Fibre Box Association, a nonprofit that tracks corrugated cardboard boxes in the U.S., almost all cardboard boxes in the country are recycled. In fact, for the last seven years the recovery rate of cardboard boxes in the U.S. has hovered around 90 percent, compared with only 54 percent of boxes recycled in 1993. And nearly half of an average box is made from recycled materials.
Increased sustainability efforts has turned into greater financial returns and even more customer loyalty from Amazon’s most eco-friendly shoppers.
“Online apparel players that have gone into more of that sustainable play, having created the transparency, are definitely getting rewarded for it,” Marchessou said.