From David Attenborough’s Blue Planet to the revelation about microplastics in the water supply, consumer concerns regarding the overreliance on plastics are beginning to make waves. While some retailers have worked hard in recent years to avoid the negative headlines associated with excessive packaging – the giant box for one mug or huge quantities of unrecyclable polystyrene chips – clearly there is much more that needs to be done in this area. But how many are also actively considering the upstream supply chain?
The packaging used to ship goods from a supplier to the distribution centre (DC) is not only a concern environmentally but also a major contributor to costs. From breaking down or removing bulk packaging before items are sent on to the consumer to recycling packaging within the DC – or managing the packaging that cannot be recycled – this is an industrial scale challenge. Add in the vast quantity of returned items that must now also be handled throughout the supply chain – often returned in packaging that has been damaged by the consumer – and the waste management implications are end to end.
There is clearly a balance to be achieved between excessive packaging and too little, which results in product damage. But there is also another aspect to consider: DCs are increasingly automated, with companies leveraging robotics and machine learning to transform operations – and at the heart of this process is standardisation. Right now, far too many companies are constrained by the sheer diversity of packaging types and sizes received from suppliers. From processing to waste management, this miscellany not only adds cost but also makes it impossible to create a best practice model that encompasses both efficiency and waste management.
While customer-facing packaging is highly visible, in the war against packaging, retailers need to focus as much on vendor management and the creation of standards to support DC automation, specific loading requirements and process, as on the end consumer delivery model. The ability to track operations throughout the supply chain needs also to consider the quality and consistency of packaging used by suppliers to both support DC automation and avoid costs associated with damage or rework.
Imposing control over the packaging used to move products throughout the supply provides massive potential savings – from the centralised procurement of packaging to the reduction of waste material and the efficiency with which items can be shipped and handled. Add in the packaging innovations that can be considered to further streamline the way items are stored, put away and distributed and the upside of a renewed focus on the upstream supply chain is significant.
Indeed, growing numbers of academics and research organisations are extending their sustainability thinking beyond textiles, including fabrics and dyes, to embrace raw materials, animal welfare and the use of sustainable wood products; without doubt the focus on sustainable packaging will now increase.
Achieving standardisation in packaging from all vendors will be key to protecting products and moving them through the supply chain as quickly as possible; but it will also open the way for companies to explore the innovation that is occurring within packaging technology.