In the Loop

How Amazon thinks inside (and outside) the box

Amazon boxes
ShutterstockGreenBiz collage; Jeramey Lende; Yuliya Chitakh

This article is drawn from the Circular Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz.

Have you ever resorted to aggressively using a kitchen knife or other tools, in a state of frustration, to open a stubborn package? You’re not alone. The experience of packaging-induced anger is known as "wrap rage," a term coined by Jeff Bezos, according to Amazon’s global head of sustainability, Kara Hurst.

For those of us attuned to environmental footprints and material flows, wrap rage also refers to the moral outrage spurred by the unnecessary packaging around purchases — the packaging equivalent of Russian nesting dolls, where boxes are shipped inside other boxes.

What’s the antidote to wrap rage? Amazon has been working for 10 years to figure it out. By partnering with brands and manufacturers, the retail giant aims to both improve customer experience while cutting down on material use through a Frustration-Free Packaging program. This means packaging is easier to open (no more tools!) and made of 100 percent recyclable materials. In many cases, products are designed to ship in their original boxes, with no additional packaging.

In practice, Amazon suppliers must go through a certification process that includes a performance test simulating the journey of a parcel through its fulfillment network, complete with predictable drops, compressions and other physical stresses. But for larger brands with complex packaging and diverse product offerings, collaboration is key.

In July, for example, Amazon highlighted a partnership with Hasbro, the toy and game company of Mr. Potato Head and Play-Doh fame — and, for some, intricate packaging annoyance. Hasbro offers a "Frustration Free" option for 100 products.

To solve this design challenge, consider the purpose of packaging in its context. For brick-and-mortar retail, the primary purpose of a box is to market, communicate and entice a customer to choose between one of many options. It all but says, "Buy me!" But when online shopping, consumers already have purchased an item once it arrives. Accordingly, its packaging serves to ship and protect, not sell.

"Fundamentally, the experience around packaging is changing," said Hurst during a presentation at GreenBiz 17. "This drives a better customer experience, it drives cost out of the business and has massive potential for positive sustainability impacts."

Having grown from offering 19 bestselling products from Microsoft, Fisher-Price and others to a catalog of nearly 2 million items (out of roughly 562 million sold on Amazon as of January) and more than 1,000 corporate partners, Amazon said the initiative has eliminated more than 244,000 tons of packaging materials and avoided 500 million shipping boxes to date.

Despite Amazon’s packaging improvements, there’s no silver bullet for cleaning up the environmental impact of e-commerce. Online retail creates a web of sustainability challenges, from increased urban congestion (PDF) and emissions to "recyclable" packaging that is never actually recycled.

While I typically focus on corporate and city-level decision-making, I can’t help but also notice an irony in corporate circular economy strategies that fundamentally encourage (and profit from) overconsumption. In 2017, Americans spent $240 billion — twice as much as they spent in 2002 — on goods such as jewelry, watches, books, luggage, telephones and related communication equipment, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which adjusted the numbers for inflation. The convenience and affordability of online shopping are compounding American consumer culture, encouraging hyperconsumption and leading to more waste.

It’s a problem that I doubt Amazon or most other retailers will tackle any time soon (Patagonia is the exception to the rule) and speaks to a systemic challenge of driving circularity through corporate commitments. But people will always need "stuff" and Amazon is helping us get it as efficiently, sustainably and frustration-free as possible.

Want to hear more about the future of Amazon’s circular economy strategy? A representative will be speaking in October at VERGE in Oakland, and you can register here using the code V18CW for a 10 percent discount.