As you read this, another tab (or two) on your browser might be cued to some online shopping. You’re not alone – the percentage of Americans who do at least some of their shopping online has increased dramatically over the last five years. In fact, the e-commerce market is forecast to grow at 10.9% annually until 2022. And while it’s tempting to think about all the things that we as a country are buying online to drive that growth, spare a thought for the boxes that protect our purchases on their journey to our front door.
The E-Commerce Explosion Brings Boxes to the Forefront
Sure, some of us may take our box for granted until we can’t open it, or when it’s ludicrously taped over. But have you ever paused to contemplate just how that box gets to your door? For that matter, have you ever considered the sheer tonnage of boxes being shipped around the country each day?
Whereas the overall market for boxes will grow at 2.6% per year through 2022, demand for boxes used for e-commerce is expected to rise 12.5% during the same period. This translates to roughly $1.8 billion worth of boxes used for e-commerce in 2022.
Now that you’ve got boxes on the brain, you might be wondering: “My Amazon box is different from my Birchbox box – which type are you talking about?”
Well, when it comes to e-commerce, it can be both.
Subscription & Fulfillment Boxes: Different Structures, Similar Functions
Boxes used for Amazon fulfillments are generally made of corrugated material sealed with water-activated tape, which is affixed with a shipping label. Corrugated material is identifiable by the wavy layer sandwiched between two layers of board. Were you to check the bottom of the box (usually), you’d also find the Box Certificate, which can tell you not only who manufactured your box and what plant it was made in, but also its edge crush test (ECT) certification.
While boxes for subscription services can also be made of corrugated material, they are more commonly folding paperboard or rigid box types (which don’t collapse). These boxes may also feature high-quality graphics – printed either on the outside of the box, the inside, or both – that set it apart from the no-fuss plain brown Amazon box.
Whatever the specific characteristics of the boxes that come to your door or office, they all serve the same fundamental purpose: protecting your shipment in transport. But what happens to that box after you remove your goodies from it?
Sustainability Efforts Target Curbing Box Waste
In terms of box disposal, there’s good news – corrugated and paperboard materials are commonly accepted by curbside recycling programs. Not coincidentally, these boxes are often also manufactured with high amounts of recycled material.
Green credentials notwithstanding, nothing beats good old source reduction when it comes to sustainability. To that end, firms all along the box supply chain have focused their energy on right-sizing boxes to ensure that your order arrives intact and with minimal excess packaging – avoiding, for example, the confounding nesting-doll experience of opening a large box only to find your purchase in a much smaller package inside. Freight carriers with dimensional weight pricing versus standard weight pricing incentivize using the smallest box possible.
Amazon has also introduced packaging protocols that provide incentives for packaging design firms to not only improve the consumer experience, but also reduce the number of boxes used. In fact, since the inception of this effort in 2007, Amazon estimates that they have eliminated 500 million boxes. As the deadline later this year approaches for vendors to make their packaging more sustainable or face a fine, you'll hear more and more about prep-free packaging, ships-in-own-container, and frustration-free packaging.
While box shipments may peak around the holiday season, e-commerce is making box delivery an indelible part of our daily lives. However, while it might be what is inside the box that counts, we count on the box itself more than we realize.
To Learn More
Interested in more information on box products, markets, and suppliers? Be sure to check out Corrugated & Paperboard Boxes, a recent study from The Freedonia Group.
About the Author:
C. Vernon Henry is an analyst at The Freedonia Group, where he writes studies focused on the packaging industry.