As Amazon faces continued calls to step up overall sustainability efforts and reduce plastic packaging, one of the company’s key packaging programs envisions fewer Amazon boxes on your doorstep.
To be sure, America’s obsession with e-commerce continues, but the juggernaut is working to grow the share of shipments delivered in the product’s original packaging. Amazon’s Justine Mahler, director of packaging innovation, leads the company’s Ships in Product Packaging program — “in some ways, you could say job obsolescence in the sense that [my job] is to eliminate packaging altogether,” she said.
In 2022, 11% of Amazon deliveries shipped in their own container, without added Amazon packaging, up from 8% in 2021. And last week, when Amazon held 48 hours of holiday season kick-off sales, the company estimated more than 13% of those U.S. shipments fulfilled by Amazon would ship without any additional Amazon packaging. Amazon plans to widen the reach of the SIPP program by extending it to all sellers that use Fulfillment by Amazon in 2024.
For a variety of reasons, not every product sold would be a fit for shipping in original packaging — so the goal isn’t to get to 100% of shipments. The company did not share targets for the program, “but we still see a healthy growth rate beyond 13%,” Mahler said.
Identifying the right packaging
SIPP is like “the tip of the spear,” Mahler said. Amazon’s ideal choice is to eliminate packaging, where possible, but from there it’s a spectrum, Mahler explained.
“Our catalog is vast, it's ever changing, and so we need to identify what's the proper packaging from anything from a T-shirt to a Crock-Pot to a canoe,” Mahler said. “To do that at scale, we utilize machine learning to be able to manage the broad category and make those packaging assignments.”
The SIPP team defines engineering standards, or what’s required for a package to be able to be fulfilled without added packaging. It’s “mission critical” the team ensures an item can ship without incurring damage in transit; Amazon developed test methods with the International Safe Transit Association. In some cases, that means working with vendors and sellers to redesign their packaging.
Size could prohibit an item — for example, small jewelry — from shipping in its original packaging, because every package requires a shipping label. Amazon doesn’t want to encourage sellers to design larger packaging for the sake of fitting a label. Sometimes consolidating multiple items into a single shipment is the most effective way to ship a package.
Decisions along the packaging spectrum are largely based on an item’s fragility. Items that aren’t considered fragile but require secondary packaging go in a paper or plastic bag. Things that are more fragile go in padded mailers. The most fragile products go in boxes.
“As you go up that spectrum, you're adding packaging, which typically adds cost, adds carbon, adds extra waste for customers. And so that's why we try to, as much as possible, downgrade,” said Mahler.
Shipping in own packaging
Another core tenet of the SIPP program is to give consumers a say. “We've got features within the shopping experience that indicate that an item will ship in its product packaging, as well as features that allow customers to add Amazon packaging,” Mahler said.
A customer might opt to add Amazon packaging when they order a gift for a family member that they want to conceal, for example. That engagement is one way the company might increase customer awareness around its packaging initiatives, even in the absence of typical marketing surfaces like box panels with room for sustainability messaging or QR codes.
There are also potential benefits around costs. One of the incentives for Fulfillment by Amazon users to get on board with SIPP in 2024 is the possibility for lower fees. Lesser packaging needs could translate to savings for sellers.
Amazon itself could also save money as it works toward a future of buying less packaging. “The less boxes we use, the better,” Mahler said. Amazon reduced its per-shipment packaging weight 41% between 2015 and 2022, which Mahler said is in large part due to the shipments that don’t require Amazon packaging. “We're not buying that packaging, and we're not consuming that packaging, and that does have an impact on our procurement supply chain.”
Amazon, which also uses third-party carriers, thinks these changes can drive broader industry adoption, something it had in mind when developing standards and working with ISTA. “The packaging standards need to be compatible with the DHLs, the USPSs of the world,” Mahler said. “We actually encourage, when we work with vendors and selling partners, that they can use it in any of the channels that they're shipping through parcel delivery as a way to drive scale and to drive momentum.”