Putting sustainability into practice

Retailers and brands are rethinking packaging and delivery systems
Sandy Smith
NRF Contributor

Recent days are starting to tell quite a story: There’s a shortage of individual ketchup packets, thanks to a 300 percent increase in restaurant to-go orders at the start of the pandemic. Corrugated cardboard boxes are in short supply as well, an effect of the 21.9 percent increase in ecommerce in 2020; NRF research anticipates another 18-23 percent growth in 2021.

In some ways, the pandemic has brought a new awareness to the issues around sustainability, says Scot Case, NRF’s vice president for corporate social responsibility. “We’ve talked with tons of members in the restaurant sector, and they are well aware that consumers do not like single-use plastics. But they are tolerating them because of the pandemic. Their understanding of immediate safety trumps long-term sustainability.”

“Currently about 65 percent of our year-round products are naked, providing customers with package-free alternatives.”

Katrina Shum, Lush Cosmetics

At the same time, Case says, the increase in takeout and ecommerce deliveries has made “more and more consumers aware of how much waste there is. People who didn’t used to think about these issues are suddenly thinking about them and realizing there has to be a better way to do it.”

Some already are finding ways.

Birchbox’s April shipment used Stasher bags, a platinum silicone alternative to single-use plastic bags; the beauty products within also were sustainably minded.  Starbucks, which suspended its reusable cup program due to COVID-19 concerns, is piloting a new concept. Borrow a Cup, currently being tested in Seattle, allows customers to borrow a reusable cup from Starbucks and pay a $1 deposit. When the cup is returned to the store’s contactless kiosk, it is professionally cleaned and sterilized. The company says each reusable cup can replace up to 30 disposable cups.

Lush Cosmetics continues to expand its “naked” line of products — those with no packaging. “Currently about 65 percent of our year-round products are naked, providing customers with package-free alternatives,” says Katrina Shum, manager of sustainability. “Over recent years, we have significantly expanded our naked, packaging-free range by reformulating products to reduce their water content, resulting in solid versions of products such as shampoo, shower gels, body lotions and toothpaste.”

Helping customers do better

Grove Collaborative has moved to eliminate plastic and provide more of its private label products in glass. (Added bonus: The products are concentrates, meaning smaller boxes and reduced shipping weight). In 2020, realizing many of its consumers don’t have access to glass recycling, the company piloted a program with Recyclops in three cities. Recyclops picks up glass recyclables from a customer’s doorstep and delivers them to a facility for processing.

Olive launched in late February from Jet.com co-founder Nate Faust. The ecommerce service allows consumers to shop from hundreds of fashion retail partner sites and receive just one weekly consolidated shipment in reusable packaging. Returns are made easier as well; consumers just need to request a doorstep pickup.

Sustainable retail

Check out more ways that retailers are moving to sustainable practices.

“Reuse and refill” also is a growing concept.

“Retailers already use reuse systems for totes and pallets back of house,” says Nina Goodrich, executive director of the environmental nonprofit GreenBlue and a director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

“In front of house, there are two main categories: The consumers return the package, and it is cleaned and filled by the business. The second category is where the consumer is responsible for refilling the product. Both of these concepts are evolving rapidly,” she says.

“New product categories are being added to traditional dry good refills. Retailers are experimenting with juice, spreads and nut butters, frozen fruits and vegetables, personal care and cleaning products.”

Goodrich points to estimates that show up to 20 percent of packaging could be replaced by reuse and refill packaging. “This is not just an expansion of current bulk food systems,” she says. “Many of the new concepts involve technology that make it easier for the retailer and more convenient for the consumer.”

That last point, Case says, is what will determine success of any sustainability project, despite younger consumers’ stated desires to support environmentally friendly companies.

“When you look at Gen Z and the Millennials, they have these wonderfully high aspirations to be consumers that care about these hidden impacts, but that’s their aspiration,” he says. “It’s impossible to do that all the time. The retailers and the brands that make it easy for them are the brands that win with that demographic.”

At Lush Cosmetics, “We see more and more people making conscious decisions around their purchases and everyday routines,” Shum says. “We also find that we have a very well-informed customer base who understands social and environmental issues, asks the tough questions and challenges us to do more and better. Our hope is that when these customers shop with Lush, they can find products that help them tread lighter on the planet while supporting a brand that is rooted in shared values.”

Ecommerce and efficiency

While the growth in ecommerce may be responsible for the mountain of cardboard boxes stacking up in recycling bins, that type of shopping might not deserve all the scorn. Not only are retailers committed to sustainable practices — like Walmart’s “rightsizing” its cardboard boxes, announced in 2016 — ecommerce also can be more sustainable than a physical environment.

Goodrich notes that a study by Generation Investment Management, released just as the pandemic took hold in 2020, found ecommerce was 17 percent more sustainable than visiting a traditional store.

“The individual customer traveling to the store and the retail store itself both had high carbon contributions,” Goodrich says. “Packaging was higher in ecommerce than in a retail store, but it was a small part of the total carbon footprint. In this assessment ecommerce had the lower overall footprint.

“It’s what we as consumers see so it’s very important to us. It is also important to remember that packaging is hired to keep the product safe in its journey to our homes. If the product is damaged or destroyed, all of the inputs into the product and package are wasted. The carbon footprint of the product inside the package is almost always much larger than the package.”

According to the Fibre Box Association, some 90 percent of corrugated boxes are recycled. Case says recycling cardboard and other packaging is one way for consumers to reduce their environmental impacts.

“The big challenge is that people think everything can be recycled,” he says. “It’s called ‘wish cycling.’ They throw everything into the recycling bin and hope it gets recycled.” Unfortunately, the practice can contaminate the recycling stream, increasing costs at the recycling center — and much of the material gets thrown away.

Retailers can help address the problem by encouraging suppliers to use the “how to recycle” label on products to show consumers what can be recycled easily. They also can sell products that contain post-consumer recycled content.

“Recycled content products are made in part from materials consumers put in their recycling bin,” Case says. “It’s a way of closing the recycling loop so materials go from the recycling bin into new products. It’s a powerful way for retailers to help Gen Z and Millennial consumers live the values they espouse.”

Related content

Laying the foundation for modern resale with ThredUp
A woman shopping.
Retail Gets Real episode 354: ThredUp co-founder and CEO James Reinhart on the outlook for the secondhand industry.
Read more
5 takeaways from NRF’s inaugural Big Show Asia Pacific
NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay at Big Show APAC 2024.
Asia Pacific is one of the world’s fastest-growing markets with limitless opportunities to expand stores and production.
Read more
Retail Circularity: An Action Guide for Retailers
circular economy icons
NRF and Deloitte collaborated to develop a guide for retailers on emerging circular business models.
Read more