As retail, a fundamentally environmentally unfriendly industry, works to become more green, it faces challenges at every turn. Those include that products must be packaged somehow, and then if a consumer buys online, those packaged goods must be placed in another package to safeguard them through whatever shipping route they're on.
But as more consumers demand sustainability from the brands they buy from, startups are launching to solve common challenges and retailers are reinventing aspects of their operations to better account for their impact on the environment. Not all are tackling sustainability to the same degree, though, or with the same amount of success.
Some companies are "just riding the bandwagon on sustainability and saying, 'Okay, we're doing this, we're doing XYZ,' but not necessarily tying that to what the impact means, and what kind of results that action will yield," Jessica Ching, senior principal analyst at Gartner, said. Brands that have more serious commitments to sustainability spell out the impact of their actions, Ching said, like the amount of carbon emissions it takes to make a product or how many were saved from a different type of production, for example.
Rather than simply announcing commitments, dedicated brands also educate consumers about those commitments and what they really mean, rather than leaving it up to consumers to do the hard work themselves. When it comes to shipping, for example, some brands offer incentives for slower delivery, according to Ching, though communicating with customers on the impact of their shipping and packaging choices is still not widely done.
"I think it's a clear opportunity there for brands and retailers to lean on. We haven't seen it as much yet," Ching said. She noted grocery delivery service Ocado is an example of a company playing around with this, as consumers can select "greener" delivery slots when they're in the checkout process.
Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of Terracycle and Loop, is coming at the problem from a different angle. Loop, which makes refillable packaging for products, sends consumers their orders in reusable shipping containers and schedules pick-up times based on factors like when a consumer is scheduled to get another shipment, rather than making an extra trip. The company is also setting up a network of retail partners that use its refillable packaging so that consumers can return their empty containers themselves to any retailer in Loop's system.
Looking long-term, Szaky thinks retailers' focus with packaging will be on increasing the recyclability of packages, more advancement on reuse (like what Loop is doing) and how to sell products with no packaging at all. But whatever advancements come, the challenge will be making sustainable choices as convenient as a consumer's current product choices.
"Whatever innovations come, they have to compete head-to-head with the convenience of disposability," Szaky said. "And the closer they feel to the convenience of disposability, or in an ideal world even better, that's going to be the winner. I would predict that in reuse, you're not going to see a mega scale up of refill stations because of the sheer cost and complexity of doing filling at a store level. Now some products, it will work, like dry cashews or gummy bears or ground coffee and whole bean coffee, but I don't think it's going to necessarily get significantly broader than that. Because how would you do insect repellent in a refill station or ice cream in a refill station or things of that nature?"
That's the reason Loop's model relies on the company being responsible for cleaning empty bottles and putting them back into circulation, rather than the consumer doing that work. In Szaky's view, taking the work out of it will get more consumers to make the sustainable choice.
There are tons of ways retailers are experimenting with more environmentally friendly packaging and shipping choices, but here are a few recent ones Retail Dive is watching.
1. Olive's attempts to consolidate e-commerce deliveries
Olive, launched earlier this year by Jet co-founder Nate Faust, is tackling sustainable shipping by consolidating consumers' e-commerce deliveries from multiple brands into one to cut down on single-use boxes. The company boasts hundreds of e-commerce sites for retailers to purchase from, including Adidas, Free People and Saks Fifth Avenue, among others.
The company also handles returns, and retailers can schedule a pickup of either their empty, reusable shipping container or their returns. Olive and Loop are both third-party companies trying to solve shipping problems by partnering with retailers, but some individual brands and retailers are also making strides on their own platforms.
"I think it's incumbent on brands and retailers to really make sure that they can do what they can," Ching said. "We have also seen a lot of brands give the option at checkout for consumers to opt into eco-friendly packaging, or taking kind of a multifunctional approach to packaging."
Ching cited Ralph Lauren as one company that allows customers to check a box to receive eco-friendly packaging, for example. Apparel retailers, in particular, can also do their part through pre-order, rental and resale models, Ching noted, so that they cut down on creating excess products altogether and have a second life for them when they do.
2. Ulta's partnership with Loop on refillable packaging
In addition to several other retail partnerships, Loop in March officially launched at Ulta Beauty, marking the "first-ever circular beauty platform," according to a release on the partnership. For Ulta, the Loop partnership was one of several recently announced moves to tackle sustainability.
While Ulta is not the only company Loop has partnered with, beauty is an especially interesting category to Szaky for several reasons. He noted there are more beauty products that can't be recycled than food or beverage products, and there's a higher range of complexity involved in the packaging of beauty products. But it also meets several other criteria Loop looks at when deciding which areas to focus on.
"One is how quickly does the object become waste from the moment you purchase it? So a coffee cup is quick, while a Swiss watch will be very slow, right?" Szaky said, adding that "how often an item is purchased is actually not that important. The second is how much design improvement opportunity is there: so if you move a shampoo bottle, like a plastic bottle, into a reusable one, there's actually a massive, massive opportunity for design improvement."
The third factor is if there are stakeholders involved that care about the category. Those factors have helped define Loop's priorities, which include fast-moving consumer goods (packaged food, beverages, home care and personal care), takeaway food packaging and then textiles ("everything from reusable diapers to baby clothing").
The Ulta partnership is starting small, but plans are to expand it over time. At the moment, consumers can only use Loop's online experience, which means Loop has to come pick up used containers from consumers, but Szaky says the in-store experience should be running by the end of the year or early next. Then, consumers can bring back empty containers and drop them off at a bin in the front of the store or at any other of Loop's retail partners whenever they come back to shop. Spreading out to more retailers also lessens the transportation load, leading to fewer carbon emissions.
"The way we're solving that is trying to again make Loop for absolutely everything so that you can get high density of products in one geography," Szaky said. "So instead, if we only did it for shampoo, you would have a very spread out network. But if we're doing it for everything from hamburgers and french fries, all the way to soda to shampoo to personal care products, then you get much bigger density and have more cleaning facilities and less transportation distance."
Szaky's other company, TerraCycle, which focuses on recycling, is also expanding its presence through partnerships with the likes of sandal brand Teva and department store Nordstrom. The company's partnership with Nordstrom is also focused on beauty; it allows customers to recycle beauty packaging at Nordstrom stores.
3. Cocokind's debut of 'Sustainability Facts' on beauty products
Beauty brand Cocokind announced in March that it would start putting "Sustainability Facts" on the packaging of its products to make the carbon impact of products clearer. The company already uses materials like sugarcane tubes and ocean waste plastic in its packaging, and includes detailed recycling instructions with products, according to Cocokind founder Priscilla Tsai. To produce the sustainability facts, the company uses a third-party research firm that evaluates the carbon footprint of every product, from pre-production to end-of-life.
The life cycle assessment takes into account pre-manufacturing, including the production of raw materials and transportation of materials to the manufacturer; production, including any waste; distribution, including freight and materials used to transport products; and end-of-life, which includes the energy to recycle, reuse or dispose of a product. The total carbon emissions are listed on the packaging, though Tsai says the company does not expect consumers to exactly know the difference between different amounts of emissions.
"We set out to educate our customers and beauty consumers in general on this topic," Tsai said via email. "It should not be on the consumer to figure all of this out because it can be so confusing and daunting. When it comes to carbon emissions we are even learning more ourselves and hope that our work will make a difference in how the consumer understands carbon emissions."
Cocokind is simultaneously attempting to educate its consumers on what these changes mean via blog and social media posts on the initiative and plans to share more learnings as the company continues to learn itself. Tsai added that this packaging shift is part of just the first phase of Cocokind's approach to carbon emissions, which is focused on researching and measuring the company's current impact. In the future, the company will move to offset emissions and create tangible action steps annually to reduce emissions.
"While the beauty industry has made so many improvements over the past few years, we noticed that there also seems to be an increasing confusion on what is real progress and what is just an empty claim," Tsai said. "Every beauty brand, including cocokind, has been guilty of using buzz words like 'clean' and 'sustainable' without doing the work."
4. Beyond the Bag's efforts to replace single-use plastic
In July 2020, The Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag was formed, with CVS, Target and Walmart making up the founding partners. The retailers' goal is to reinvent the plastic bag through a three-year program, dubbed Beyond the Bag, that identifies alternatives through a contest, and works to scale them. The three founding companies put $15 million into the initiative collectively and have since been joined by a host of other big names in retail, including Dick's Sporting Goods, Dollar General, TJX and Walgreens.
In February, the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners announced nine winners of the challenge, out of 450 ideas submitted: ChicoBag, Domtar, Eon, Fill it Forward, Goatote, PlasticFri, Returnity, SmartC and Sway. The companies span a variety of solutions to single-use plastic bags, including reusable shipping bags and boxes, a kiosk system that allows customers to access clean reusable bags on-site, a borrowing service for reusable bags, and various material innovations, including making plastic bag alternatives out of seaweed.
Each of the nine companies will receive "a portion of $1 million," including possible additional financing as they work to pilot and scale their solutions. The retailers in the consortium will spend 2021 helping the winners with prototyping, mentoring and moving toward in-store pilots.
"There is no one-size-fits-all solution to tackle a problem as complex as our reliance on single-use plastic bags," Kate Daly, managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, said in a statement. "The diversity of our winners underscores how businesses and consumers alike need to employ a range of solutions to fit different geographic, social and economic contexts."
5. Schick's fully recyclable razor
Schick in March announced the Schick Xtreme 3 Eco Glide, which it says is the first and only razor on the mass market to be fully recyclable, including the razor and the packaging. Natalya Utesheva, senior brand manager at Schick, said the process for creating the Eco Glide razor started about a year and a half ago.
"Disposable razors are made from plastic, which by definition means that a lot of plastic ends up getting thrown away," Utesheva said, "so we were just so excited to innovate and to bring something to the consumer that is still an amazing shave from a quality perspective — it has flexible blades, it's got really amazing glide — but without the guilt for the environment because it's made from 100% recycled plastic."
To realize the dream, Schick had to work with suppliers to find recycled plastic durable enough to mold into the right shape for a handle, according to Utesheva. It's "extremely challenging" to reach the 100% post-consumer recycled plastic mark, Utesheva said. "It's much easier, from what I understand from our supply chain partners, to have a mixture. So like, 60% to 80% of the plastic is made from recycled materials and then the rest is virgin plastic because the virgin, of course, is stronger. But the 100% is no small feat to achieve, which is why we're so proud of it."
In addition to the fully recyclable Eco Glide, every Schick Xtreme razor now has a handle made at least in part with post-consumer recycled plastic, Utesheva said, with the company planning to increase the percentage of post-consumer recycled plastic over the years. The fully recyclable Eco Glide costs a little more than its regular razors, but about half of Schick's customers are what Utesheva calls "eco-considerers," which means they are willing to compromise a little bit or pay a little more to have sustainability baked into the product. The other half, however, are "eco-dismissers," who aren't willing to sacrifice convenience in any way, no matter the environmental impact.
Parent company Edgewell is looking for other ways to solve for packaging as well, including launching an Edgewell Recycling program earlier this year, which gives customers a shipping label and allows them to recycle products for free.