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Amazon's long journey to get rid of its iconic brown boxes

by SuperiorInvest

Amazon packages are prepared for delivery at the Amazon Robotic Fulfillment Center on December 19, 2023 in Sutton Coldfield, England.

Nathan Stirk | Getty Images News | fake images

Each year, the United States consumes enough cardboard shipping boxes to pave a mile-wide highway from New York City to Los Angeles three times, or build a mile-high cardboard wall around the entire country. continental United States.

Among the main targets to help reduce this mountain of packaging, the most notable may be the Amazon shipping box or envelope. In 2022, 11% of Amazon orders worldwide were shipped in the original manufacturer's packaging. The company has not yet released its 2023 figure for the initiative designed to get rid of Amazon's signature brown box, called the Ships in Product Packaging program.

It identifies products that might work, contacts suppliers, and then, to ensure packages aren't damaged during delivery, Amazon works with those companies to test the products in a lab. Packages must be able to withstand drops from a conveyor belt, vibrations and jolts in the truck, or the delivery person accidentally dropping the package while walking to the door.

“We pre-qualify products to ensure they are delivered to customers without damage. We then simulate the e-commerce fulfillment process as part of that testing process so that as products are enrolled in the program, we ensure that they comply with that minimum. standard to arrive safely,” said Kayla Fenton, senior manager of packaging innovation at Amazon.

The tests vary depending on the product. Liquid items are more complicated than a stuffed animal. “Our tests are designed to react to a particular type of product and its inherent fragility,” Fenton said. The test results are then fed into machine learning models that scan Amazon's catalog for more items that can be added to the program. For example, if a seller sells a red T-shirt, the blue T-shirt is likely to do just as well, Fenton said.

Products are tested five times, and each time something breaks, it helps machine learning models evaluate what went wrong and how to fix it. Customer feedback is also incorporated into the system. If customers complain about damage and return more items because of it, Amazon can reuse boxes.

Go North Group, a Fulfilled by Amazon aggregator that sells a wide range of home and garden, health, sports and pet products, was among those asked to join Amazon's packaged shipping program. Johan Stellansson, Go North's supply chain director, said testing revealed that 80% of the company's products can be shipped without additional packaging, including its MalsiPree portable water bottle for dogs.

In some cases, an extra piece of tape was enough to add some extra stability to the box so it could make it through the shipping process without damage, including some of the company's pet stain and odor remover products, which come in bottles that They are then packed in boxes. Larger products that require a lot of filling didn't make it into the program, and Stellansson said that caused the company to reconsider whether it should continue selling the product on Amazon. “We wouldn't develop a new product unless we could ship it in the manufacturer's boxes,” he said.

Many efforts to reduce packaging are still underway, but one simple strategy that Amazon is increasingly using to reduce packaging use is boxes directly from companies like Clorox, McDonalds, and Starbucks, without additional cardboard from Amazon.


Amazon initially opened the program to suppliers and has since opened it to sellers. Sellers are more like Amazon suppliers, while sellers operate more independently.

Fenton noted that as Amazon's warehouse network has developed and gotten closer to customers in some areas, the delivery process is shorter, allowing the company to ship even more items without packaging. Also, not all elements enter the program. Some never will. Personal items, such as adult diapers or sexual wellness products, will not be shipped without boxes or envelopes for privacy reasons. Additionally, Fenton emphasized that customers can choose at checkout whether or not to ship in the manufacturer's packaging.

Not all items can be shipped without box or mail. To this end, Amazon has been working to reduce packaging, especially plastic, swapping plastic bubble mailers for paper envelopes and plastic bubbles for paper. It recently converted a fulfillment center outside Cleveland, Ohio, from plastic to 100% recyclable paper. The center uses a machine that scans items and then creates a box or envelope that is exactly the right size, reducing the amount of air and using less packaging, which adds weight.

Automation and machine learning play a role in minimizing packaging. “The more we can automate, the more control we have over 'right sizing.' We can truly wrap or package any size, dimension or product, as long as we can measure it appropriately with the cameras,” said Pat Lindner, Amazon's vice president of mechatronics and sustainable packaging. . Ultimately, the move to reduce packaging has multiple benefits: it saves money and reduces waste.

“We think this is good for the environment. We think it's good for customers because it means less material to deal with at home,” Lindner said.

Consumption habits remain difficult to change

The move to reduce or eliminate additional packaging is only part of the solution. Another is reusable containers. Amazon has experimented with reusable products in the past, primarily through Amazon Fresh grocery deliveries, but found that very few customers returned the insulated containers.

Asking people to change their usual habits by returning packaging is an uphill battle. Still, some companies are introducing reusable packaging, said Michael Newman, CEO of Returnity Innovations, which provides reusable boxes and bags for companies such as Rent the Runway and the clothing brand Vuori.

Newman said reusable products work best when people don't have to change their habits. These circumstances include when people are already returning something or when they are purchasing multiple sizes of the same item to try on at home. Reusable packaging can also work when products are shipped to a retail store and employees are responsible for returning the boxes.

“It does not require a change in behavior on the part of consumers,” he said.

The packaging is designed to withstand the average number of reuses, which can vary from five to 20 times, depending on the company. Newman said that for reusable products to work from a carbon footprint perspective, customer return rates need to be 90% to 95%. Reusables tend to use more resources, they are thicker plastics, so if they are thrown away or not reused often enough, the environmental impact can be worse than using single-use plastic.

Matt Semmelhack, CEO and co-founder of Boox, supplies reusable shipping boxes to direct-to-home luxury brands like Goop and Rhode, but because the boxes must be returned in a separate step, the return rate is lower at 20%. Still, he is optimistic that with the legislation consumer habits will change. “There will be a tipping point, and it will probably be when Walmart or Amazon starts doing it,” he said.

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