As online shopping accounts for a greater share of total retail sales, brands are being forced to design products around ease of shipping. “Singles’ Day”—China’s version of a Black Friday shopping holiday—was criticized as an “ecological disaster for the planet,” creating over 300,000 tons of waste packaging. So starting August 1, 2019, Amazon will be asking its thousands of vendors to adopt new packaging standards under the company’s Frustration-Free-Packaging Program, Melanie Janin, who heads the company’s sustainability communications, told Bloomberg Environment, “Our packaging innovations to date have eliminated over 500 million boxes and more than 244,000 tons of packaging materials,” Janin said. The company wants to eliminate the need for “overboxing,” by having items arrive at its fulfillment centers ready to ship out in their original box.

Complaints about e-commerce packaging, sometimes called “wrap rage,” aren’t uncommon: Products that are hard to get open, or small products shipped in big boxes, are all over social media. While packaging changes to make things easier to ship might seem easy, it actually involves a lot of cost and design research and development. Products meant for brick-and-mortar stores are designed for shelf presence, often with oversize bottles, full-color glossy printing, or other eye-catching features that aren’t necessary for online retail. “The shopping journey is changing,” said Jeff Jackson, vice president of Amazon account management at the toy-maker Hasbro, based in Providence, R.I.

For years, most brands simply took the same product meant for retail shopping and put it in a box. “It was a disaster,” said Martin Wolf, director of sustainability and authenticity at Seventh Generation, a maker of environmentally friendly cleaning products based in Burlington, Vt. “We probably left trails of laundry detergent leading up to every house that was delivered to,” Wolf told Bloomberg Environment. He said a critical moment came when the company started offering two highly concentrated 40-ounce bottles, instead of the 200-ounce options being sold by their competitors. In addition to reducing instances of damaged deliveries, Wolf said redesigning the bottles for easier shipping also saves the company money. “Every time Amazon touches the product, they charge us for it,” he said. So developing a ready to ship design was huge for us.”

Last year, Amazon shipped more than 5 billion items worldwide through its Prime service alone. It takes a lot of trees to produce that much cardboard. Measuring the sustainability impacts of e-commerce is notoriously difficult to pin down. As more people shop online, they might use their cars less. And delivery services have immense incentives to find the most efficient routes, keeping their fuel costs and emissions down. But online sales are predicted to double—to around 25 percent of U.S. retail sales within the next decade—and that translates into a literal mountain of cardboard, as well as emissions from freight services.

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