Online Holiday Shopping Reigns Supreme – but what happens to all those boxes?

By Rachel Kenyon, vice president, Fibre Box Association (FBA)

Shoppers’ growing dependence on e-commerce to deliver the products they want, directly to their homes, is creating an evolution in America’s holiday shopping traditions. Amazon continues to lead the pack in online sales (though Walmart is closing the gap in some categories). This year, 81 percent of online holiday shoppers planned to visit Amazon to purchase gifts, according to a new study by CPC Strategy’s 2018 U.S. Holiday Shopping Forecast.

This shift in shopping behavior is causing people to wonder about the effect of e-commerce on the volume of packaging produced and discarded – a conversation that’s amplified during the holiday season. Omnichannel is where it’s at, truth be told – according to CPC Strategy’s report, customers are not replacing their in-store holiday shopping with online shopping. Instead, they’ve learned to balance the two, and about 25 percent of holiday shoppers planned to buy gifts both online and in store this season.

Does e-commerce increase packaging waste?

Even within the omnichannel environment, e-commerce continues a steady rise. The growing appearance of shipping boxes on front porches and doorsteps across America leads many to ask, “what happens to all those boxes when they’re emptied?” Often the people asking that question assume that it’s bad news, and the so-called “Amazon effect” spells trouble for our planet.

It simply isn’t so. All those boxes delivering gifts and goods to households today are simply being rerouted – they’re going directly to consumers instead of retail stores. Corrugated production peaked in 1999, long before the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Since then, throughout the U.S. economic recovery, corrugated production has grown modestly at about 2-3 percent annually – compared with e-commerce growth of 15 percent. Moreover, it’s estimated that e-commerce packaging represents only about ten percent of corrugated use in 2018.

Working double duty

Meanwhile, corrugated performs as an e-commerce superhero – humble, yet highly effective as a transport package that easily doubles as a brand representative for the products inside.

Digital printing advancements are enabling box manufacturers to produce unprecedented, high-impact graphics and economical printing of boxes in short, custom runs, helpful for brands seeking to create personalized user experiences and individualized consumer engagement. Packaging can now be designed in iterations that address specialized market segments and even holiday promotions, further reducing waste.

Direct shipping to consumers makes it more important than ever for brands to make sure their product packaging is not wasteful, and its sustainability is understood. If the package is recyclable, consumers need to know that. Direct shipment also creates opportunities to combine primary and secondary packaging; the transport box becomes a brand ambassador.

A proven track record of environmental stewardship

Corrugated’s recovery and re-use rates have dramatically surpassed those of other packaging materials for decades, but it didn’t happen overnight. It took a prolonged and focused industry effort whose success shows corrugated manufacturers’ embedded commitment to the environment that can be counted on for the future, even as distribution channels evolve.

Way back in 1970, the corrugated industry was instrumental in creating the familiar “chasing arrows” logo universally recognized as the recycling symbol today. The corrugated industry innovated again in the early 1990s, developing the Corrugated Recycles symbol to help people identify corrugated for recycling. At the time, curbside recycling was new to most communities. Raising awareness of corrugated’s recyclability was an essential first step to increase its recovery rate. Later adopted internationally, the Corrugated Recycles symbol is printed on the bottom of most corrugated boxes today as a clear sign that the package can be recycled. The percentage of corrugated recovered for recycling has been climbing steadily since the symbol’s adoption and has hovered around 90 percent for years. More statistics are available at

Fit to purpose, beyond recycling

E-commerce could not succeed without superior product protection for packages in transit. The fact is, an environmentally-friendly package fails if the product inside is damaged during shipment. That’s one reason corrugated is uniquely suited to support e-commerce. In addition to the branding opportunities afforded by corrugated’s custom design and new printing technologies, corrugated boxes can be engineered to specifically fit intended contents and optimized for minimal waste and maximum value. Corrugated’s fluted construction and elasticity help protect contents; high strength-to-weight ratio reduces the risk of damage in transit and eliminates wasted space in truckloads, reducing shipping costs – another benefit to the environment.

Commitment to the future

True to its legacy, the corrugated industry is deeply committed to providing renewable, recyclable, sustainable packaging that meets the needs of brands and consumers while minimizing waste. Online shoppers and their watchful neighbors need not worry about those boxes. Corrugated is designed for reliable packaging that supports the brand with impactful messaging and product protection, while also offering ample opportunity for consumers to shop without guilt – and recycle.


About the Author

Rachel Kenyon is vice president of the Fibre Box Association (FBA), a non-profit trade association representing North American manufacturers of corrugated packaging.

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