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Will Rising Packaging Costs be the Catalyst for Sustainable Shipping Materials?

Sustainability initiatives within footwear have been driven by a who’s who of the top brands within the industry, with companies like Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Allbirds, Timberland and Toms among many finding reusable materials for shoe design and production.

But the clunky cardboard box that carries these shoes rarely takes another form or shape, and often includes additional cardboard inserts, plastic bag coverings and tissue paper that can easily contribute to a more wasteful purchase, lending to the idea that maybe it’s time for footwear companies to rethink the type of packaging they use.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has likely convinced many footwear companies to put there efforts elsewhere, brands must focus on sustainable packaging now due to an upcoming jump in packaging costs, according to Andy Polk, senior vice president at the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA).

“Packaging costs are going to increase because China is not accepting some of the recycled pulp and paper like they once did,” Polk told Sourcing Journal. “There’s going to be scarcity. There’s no chance you cannot optimize your packaging or you can’t push it down the road. There’s going to be a real pain point in your margin if you’re not looking at right now and trying to figure out…what you’re going to replace your original packaging with.”

Some footwear brands have already made a significant commitment to recyclable packaging. Puma accomplished its goal of 100 percent of paper and cardboard in product packaging from certified or recycled sources, while Skechers-branded shoeboxes have reached 93 percent full-recyclability with 100 percent of foot forms and tissue paper able to be recycled.

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Rothy’s and Cariuma also make sure to package shoes in materials that are 100 percent-recycled and recyclable, with packaging suppliers are all certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a non-profit that sets standards for responsible forest management.

Sustainable packaging still doesn’t take priority

Yet, while all these initiatives have gotten off the ground, recyclable footwear packaging isn’t terribly different from a standard shoebox when it comes to how much space it takes up.

“The key problem in packaging, especially footwear, is that it’s reactionary,” said Ryan Gaither, international sales executive at sustainable packaging materials supplier BillerudKorsnäs. “We have this product and we have to get it to market. A shoe sits on a display by itself and the packaging is more of a vehicle to help it to get from point A to point B.”

And with consumers constantly taking the shoes out of the boxes in stores to try them on, and not putting them back correctly, the packaging falls down the list of daily priorities, especially compared to other sustainability issues, according to Gaither.

“To compound that, the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) factories that produce the shoes are usually independently owned,” Gaither told Sourcing Journal. “The brands have varying levels of influence on the OEM’s action, so a brand can come in and demand that they tighten up the packaging, but that’s only going to go so far.”

Consumers, however, are taking note of the excess waste across the board. According to a survey from DS Smith, a sustainable packaging company, nearly all consumers (93 percent) reported they have received packages with wasted space, and nearly three-fourths (73 percent) have received packages that were twice the size or more needed.

The e-commerce side is what is really expected to nudge the innovation across the industry, because packaging can’t afford to be flimsy, especially at the rate online shoppers return products.

“If it is returned, the packaging has to be strong enough that it can endure that same return structure in a truck all the way back to the warehouse,” Polk said. “From a consumer consideration viewpoint, I think that’s missing because the industry typically sees it as a supply chain issue or a cost issue. Brands say ‘I have to put this in a paper or cardboard box so let’s just make sure our cost there is low and put more money or into a product.’ It’s not wrong thinking, it’s just outdated thinking.”

Viupax reduces materials 57 percent

One company looking to lead the charge in sustainable footwear packaging is Viupax, which constructed a classic shoebox that reduces materials used by up to 57 percent. The Viupax shoebox is designed occupy less volume compared to a traditional shoebox, enabling more shoes to be loaded into shipping container packing. The box can be repurposed as a shopping bag once the shoe is taken out, giving it reusability.

And from a consumer standpoint, shoppers are able to see the shoe and its size availability without having to take it out of the box.

Despite the search for newer materials as part of building a more sustainable footwear packaging solution, Viupax founder Andreas Kioroglou believes “cardboard is still the way to go” due to its high performance in transportation.

“It’s recyclable, strong, lightweight and above all cost efficient,” Kioroglou said. “On all our boxes, we use at least 85 percent recycled cardboard on the most cost-efficient version of Viupax. We can use 100 percent-recycled FSC cardboard at a bit higher price. All our printing partners are FSC-certified.”

Gaither agreed with the sentiment regarding new materials, in that he believes nothing has been developed that could play a major role in the improvement of sustainable footwear packaging.

“You’ve seen companies deviate over the years and try these new things and I’m all for it,” Gaither said. “Explore every avenue and what’s out there that we’re not utilizing, but there hasn’t been that magic material that’s popped up to say this is a better road to take than fiber-based packaging.”

Viupax is launching its Shoeperbox in the fourth quarter of 2020, which Kioroglou says uses between 10 percent and 30 percent less cardboard, as well as 11 percent to 30 percent less paper compared to the traditional shoe boxes on the market.

Leveraging data to identify packaging weaknesses

Delta Global, a packaging provider for numerous luxury retail brands in the fashion and beauty sectors, is turning to data to deliver on improving sustainability measures within the supply chain, launching its own intelligence system to enable greater transparency and control.

Currently, most of the data that U.S. footwear brands have remains on the brand side, so building solutions that can share certain data on the partner side could be a boon, particularly in forming new kinds of packaging.

With this data, brands can give their suppliers and manufacturers better insight into factors such as why the shoe was returned, how many items are returned or how much of certain materials is being used.

Polk envisions a future where data can be used regionally so warehouses in the South, for example, may optimize their packaging with more density due to humid conditions that could damage a shoebox.

“I think more brands are going to be asking their factories to measure recycled content, how much tonnage of the pulp goes into the packaging,” Polk said. “It’s a lot easier to ask a partner supplier than it is a factory in many instances, because they’re keeping track of that…Last mile is the real challenge, because you can get those measurements up front, but it’s how does that box live and what happens to it after the fact. If packaging is coming back, we certainly should be looking at how many of the packages are damaged and that will help us determine how strong the packaging is or how strong we need packaging to be.”