Companies use a host of tools and processes such as quality control checks and returns tracking reports to keep damage rates at “acceptable” levels, which is usually two to eight percent. Oftentimes, damage is just written off as a loss.

Preventing damage during shipments is the better business decision, not only will it result in higher profitability but will also serve as a sustainability imperative.

Dan Healey, Director of Sustainability for Sealed Air’s Product Care division, writes about why concentrating on actions such as swapping plastic air pillows for material that can be tossed directly into recycling bins may not be the best approach when it comes to making sustainability gains.

The Damage Drain: Permissible or Preventable?

Sealed Air is a leading manufacturer of protective packaging solutions. We invented Bubble Wrap® 60 years ago and have been solving the problem of preventing damaged goods ever since. We believe companies shouldn’t consider any damage rate as acceptable. Damage reduction can and should be improved in order to retain customers and minimise costly returns.

More often than not, if and when a retailer decides to look for sustainability gains inside the shipping cycle, they’re almost always looking at the recyclability of the packaging. This means they’re only concentrating on actions such as swapping plastic air pillows for materials such as crinkled paper that can be tossed directly into recycling bins.

But the manufacturing and disposing of the packaging materials accounts for just five percent of the environmental impact of the shipping. So even if a retailer discovered a packaging material that was “carbon neutral” and was recycled 100 percent of the time (just because a material is recyclable doesn’t mean it’s recycled) at best, they would only improve the environmental footprint of its shipping cycle by five percent.

Forty-eight percent (almost half of the total environmental cost of shipping) comes from damage, and that’s assuming a damage rate of just one percent, which most companies would deem outstanding. Even with a one percent damage rate, the impact of that damage still represents 48 percent of the environmental impact associated with shipping.

If you're a retailer looking at the fulfilment process as a place to reduce environmental impact where should you start? In the five percent impact of interior packaging materials? Or would you work on getting the damage rate below one percent? Would you stop thinking one percent is acceptable?

Materials that are easily disposable matter. And the sustainability values of a company are clearly conveyed by the materials used to deliver goods. These are conversations we must continue to have and solutions we must continue to innovate.

Beyond the Recycle Bin: Getting Consumers to See the Bigger Picture

Those of us who have expertise with fulfilment challenges also have a duty to educate consumers on why certain packaging materials are chosen over others. The true sustainability impact doesn't come from whether or not it's made of recycled material or if it can be recycled at home, it lies in the ability to eliminate the risk of damage and eliminate the risk of that item doubling, tripling or even quadrupling its environmental footprint.

Being “recyclable” isn't a silver bullet. We aren’t going to be able to recycle our way out of the environmental problems that e-commerce creates.

Making more products recyclable is a big step, but those solutions should also require less energy to produce, fewer trucks for transport, less fuel for the trucks and more recyclability at end of life.

This is a complex issue, and at a time when there is enormous consumer pressure on plastics, it is a nuanced conversation to have with businesses and consumers alike.

The ultimate goal for brands, retailers and consumers should be to understand that ensuring an item is delivered undamaged, using materials that were sourced, created and applied using the least amount of waste and energy is what will lead to truly sustainable outcomes.