large pile of packages in the back of a delivery truck
PHOTO: Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum

If we could design without the packaging, we would have a major impact on waste reduction. To save our planet we must first radically reduce the amount of packaging we create and consume.

Under certain circumstances, ecommerce could be better for the environment than driving to the store. But if ecommerce encourages unnecessary consumption, then it will be worse. Research compiled by Shopify in 2019 from eMarketer, Star Business Journal and Forrester, estimated that while brick-and-mortar goods returns are in the range of 8% to 10%, ecommerce returns average out at 20%. David Sobie, co-founder of Happy Returns, a network of physical return locations, estimated that apparel returns can be as high as 30%, and that at holiday times online returns can reach 40%.

Transporting returned products in the US creates over 15 million metric tons of CO2 pollution every year, according to Optoro, a logistics optimization firm. We’d need to plant 1.5 billion trees to deal with that amount of pollution. Not just that, about 2.5 million tons of these returned goods are then dumped, creating even more pollution.

Ecommerce packaging accounts for 30% of solid waste generated in the US, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. About 165 billion packages are shipped in the US each year. That’s a billion trees’ worth of cardboard, according to data from USPS, FedEx and UPS analyzed by LimeLoop. If 20% of ecommerce purchases are returned, then 200 million trees are being cut down every year to deal with the passing whims of US consumers alone.

Packaging is everywhere. So much content is packaging. I recently read a blog post by a senior executive about a new initiative his organization had launched. About 80% of it was packaging. He talked about how the industry was changing, how customers were so busy these days, how they were listening to their customers, how he was delighted to announce the launch of this initiative. Only in the last couple of paragraphs did he actually explain what the initiative was about.

When you come to a website and see a huge useless image of a fake smiling face, that’s packaging. You have to unwrap that packaging to try and get to the actual services the website offers. Often, there are layers and layers of useless packaging in your way.

Has web content improved in the last 20 years? I still come across huge quantities of useless content packaging. I meet an increasing number of content professionals who lament that things are actually going backwards in their organizations. With all these advances in communications technology, are we seeing advances in the quality of communication?

What about Slack? Wasn’t it supposed to make things better? “We’re just moving email to another place and it’s less searchable,” Sarah Peck, founder of Startup Pregnant, has stated about Slack.

Digital is a massive cauldron of waste and unnecessary packaging. Every year the techies give us shinier, cooler diggers so that we can shovel crap even faster. The web is becoming a heavier, wider and deeper rubbish dump every year. It’s time to clean up the mess we’ve made because it’s costing the Earth.