Most companies today are interested in reducing their carbon footprints. However, they sometimes get lost when trying to put together a concrete plan. Clint Smith, senior director of global sustainability at Pregis, considers one of the areas that is frequently overlooked in this context: the environmental impact of goods that are damaged during transit.

E-commerce has increased substantially during the global pandemic. This means that a “larger than ever before” universe of products has been exposed to damage during the distribution cycle.

Understand the impact of damaged goods

An important part of the sustainability conversation is the effect of shipping volumes, as well as goods that are damaged due to inadequate or incorrect packaging. According to a Walker Sands “Future of Retail” report, the number of packages returned due to damage is one in 10, and repackaging and reshipping new products to consumers add significantly to our overall carbon footprint.

It’s easy to think that letting the consumer keep the damaged product and shipping a replacement is helping to bring down waste. However, a damaged product that is thrown out by the consumer contributes to the overall amount of landfill waste. Based on returns data from Optoro, an estimated €570 million of damaged product is discarded globally every year. These goods could have been delivered intact if the right packaging had been used to protect it.  

Find ways to use packaging to minimize damage

Not only are a lot of packages damaged in transit, but there are also a lot of opportunities along the journey for them to be dented. They can be compressed, or packages can experience vibration or shock that damages the goods inside. They can also be exposed to water, heat, and humidity that affects the integrity of the shipping container and the condition of the items.

Not only is it important to design packaging that’s effective for the appropriate transportation environment — including parcel, drone, truckload, and less than truckload shipping — but, when possible, utilize materials that are environmentally friendly and support a circular economy. Some of these choices are made from recycled content. This provides a way to reduce the amount of packaging that heads to the landfill.

Additionally, you can consider using films to protect surfaces from damage like scratches and marring during transit, particularly with consumer electronics or automotive parts that require a flawless finish. Products are also damaged when they rattle around in a box or are crushed by a heavier item on top, which is why rightsizing is so important. For example, choosing a smaller box for a smaller item, and using sufficient cushioning, will protect the item better than placing it in a large box.

Label choices can also have an impact on how shipping contributes to our carbon footprint. A label that isn’t readable or that peels off can mean the order either comes back to us, is misdelivered, or ends up in a landfill. For instance, in the UK, Royal Mail will throw away undeliverable mail after one month if it can’t be returned to the sender. This is an opportunity to print shipping information directly onto the shipping bag with a polybag, which removes the risk of losing the label, or poor quality printing that makes the label illegible. 

Educate and communicate with customers

Consumers care about sustainability. According to a recent survey by OnePulse, 88% would be more loyal to a company that supports sustainability issues. And while there are multiple ways that companies can approach sustainable practices, one way to have an immediate, strong impact is by taking a closer look at protective packaging and the number of damaged products that are being delivered to customers.

A Packaging InSight study discovered that 73% of people are unlikely to purchase from a company again if they receive a damaged product. Respondents also ranked product protection as the most important characteristic of the packaging materials used to ship items to their final destination by 80% of respondents.


This is not only a huge opportunity to improve the unboxing experience, as dissatisfied customers will tell nine to 15 people about the negative experience, but also to educate customers. Providing them with information on why certain materials are being used, as well as how to recycle them, can be critical for improving the overall customer experience.

Changing packaging or adding more protective packaging elements can lead some eco-conscious consumers to believe that companies aren't choosing what’s best for the environment. Customers may also ask why you’re not using a different kind of material to ship your products.

And if you’re using something that may not be considered sustainable, it’s okay to explain why that material was chosen and the benefit it provides to your product and the consumer, whether it’s less damage, an extended shelf life, or less food waste. We can take a page from meal kit delivery companies and use creative packaging inserts and links to our website to explain to customers why this type of packaging was chosen (for example: to insulate fresh food and keep it at the right temperature).

From there, you can communicate the proper end-of-life treatment for the packaging. Bring your consumers along on the journey by providing them insight into how your company is continually working on creating more sustainable packaging choices. Ultimately, if a company can understand the impact shipping has on its sustainability efforts, choose the right packaging for the job, and educate its customers on the right packaging choices, it can reduce its carbon footprints and have real, tangible, corroborated results.

This affects greenhouse gas emissions, and we know that we need to create an actionable plan to mitigate these environmental repercussions. Doing this can help companies take real steps toward actually reducing their carbon footprint, so that sustainability efforts yield real, not mythical, results. 

Create an action plan

The missing link that turns sustainability into a tangible effort is an action plan. Companies can start by identifying sustainability goals, creating accountability and ownership of these goals, and partnering with other organizations that can help. This puts the how at the center of sustainability efforts, which is what many discussions are missing.

While these action plans can focus on the materials used in packaging, there are other actions that can be just as impactful that should be part of a sustainability plan.