Deep in the forest, a larger-than-life creature roams, leaving enormous footprints. Known as Bigfoot or the Sasquatch, very few people can actually claim to have seen this elusive figure. He could be a bear; he could be a hoax; he could be the product of overactive imaginations combined with a healthy dose of folklore. The general consensus, however, is that Bigfoot is not real.

    In shipping and packaging, there are a lot of definitions of what “sustainability” means. In fact, because there are so many different ways that companies can make more sustainable choices, it can sometimes feel just as elusive as Bigfoot. Companies often have big ideas on how they can reduce their carbon footprints. But when it comes down to creating a definitive plan, it slips quietly into the forest, leaving us with only a grainy picture of what we want to do — and no truly concrete way to move forward with our sustainability efforts.

    What we do know is that shipping has a massive impact on the environment. Parcel shipping has more than doubled in the last five years, and its year-over-year growth is 17%. This affects greenhouse gas emissions, and we know that we need to create an actionable plan to mitigate these environmental repercussions. Doing this can help companies take real steps toward actually reducing their carbon footprint, so that sustainability efforts yield real, not mythical, results.

    Create an Action Plan

    The missing link that turns sustainability into a tangible effort is an action plan. Companies can start by identifying sustainability goals, creating accountability and ownership of these goals, and partnering with other organizations that can help. This puts the how at the center of sustainability efforts, which is what many discussions are missing.

    While these action plans can focus on the materials used in packaging, there are other actions that can be just as impactful that should be part of a sustainability plan.

    Understand the Impact of Damaged Goods

    An important part of the sustainability conversation is the effect of shipping volumes, as well as goods that are damaged due to inadequate or inappropriate packaging. According to a Walker Sands “Future of Retail” report, the number of packages returned due to damage is one in 10 , and repackaging and reshipping new products to consumers adds significantly to our overall carbon footprint

    It’s easy to think that letting the consumer keep the damaged product and shipping a replacement is helping to bring down waste. However, a damaged product that is thrown out by the consumer contributes to the overall amount of landfill waste. Over 5 billion poundsof damaged products end up in landfills every year – product that could have been delivered intact if only the right packaging had been used to protect it.

    Find Ways to Use Packaging to Minimize Damage

    Not only are a lot of packages damaged in transit, but there are also a lot of opportunities along the journey for them to be mangled. They can be compressed, or packages can experience vibration or shock that damages the goods inside. They can also be exposed to water, heat, and humidity that affects the integrity of the shipping container and the condition of the items upon their arrival.

    Not only is it important to design packaging that’s effective for the appropriate transportation environment — including parcel, drone, truckload, and less than truckload shipping — but, when possible, utilize materials that are environmentally friendly and support a circular economy. Some of these choices are made from recycled content. This provides a way to reduce the amount of packaging that heads to the landfill — which is 80.1 million tons per year, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

    Additionally, you can consider using films to protect surfaces from damage like scratches and marring during transit, particularly with consumer electronics or automotive parts that require a flawless finish. For perishables, you’ll need insulated packaging to ensure goods arrive fresh and intact – bruised produce or spoiled meat are not an appetizing sight.Products are also damaged when they rattle around in a box or are crushed by a heavier item on top, which is why right sizing is so important. For example, choosing a smaller box for a smaller item, and using sufficient cushioning, will protect the item better than placing it in a large box.

    Label choices can also have an impact on how shipping contributes to our carbon footprint. A label that isn’t readable or that peels off can mean the order either comes back to us, is misdelivered, or ends up in a landfill. For instance, items that are undeliverable and deemed low value by the United States Postal Service (under $25 are likely to be thrown away. In the UK, Royal Mail will throw away undeliverable mail after one month if they can’t return it to the sender. This is an opportunity to print shipping information directly onto the shipping bag with a poly bag, which removes the risk of losing the label or poor quality printing that make the label illegible.

    Educate and Communicate with Customers

    Consumers care about sustainability. According to a recent survey by OnePulse, 88% would be more loyalto a company that supports sustainability issues. And while there are multiple ways that companies can approach sustainable practices, one way to have an immediate, strong impact is by taking a closer look at protective packaging and the number of damaged products that are being delivered to customers.

    A Packaging InSight study discovered that 73% of people are unlikely to purchase from a company again if they receive a damaged product. Respondents also ranked product protection as the most important characteristic of the packaging materials used to ship items to their final destination by80% of respondents.This is not only a huge opportunity to improve the unboxing experience, as dissatisfied customers will tellnine to 15 people about the negative experience, but also to educate customers. Providing them with information on why certain materials are being used, as well as how to recycle them, can be critical for improving the overall customer experience.

    Changing packaging or adding more protective packaging elements can lead some eco-conscious consumers to believe that companies aren't choosing what’s best for the environment. Customers may also ask why you’re not using a different kind of material to ship your products. And if you’re using something that may not be considered sustainable, it’s okay to explain why that material was chosen and the benefit it provides to your product and the consumer, whether it’s less damage, an extended shelf life, or less food waste. We can take a page from meal kit delivery companies and use creative packaging inserts and links to our website to explain to customers why this type of packaging was chosen (for example: to insulate fresh food and keep it at the right temperature).

    From there, you can communicate the proper end-of-life treatment for the packaging. On the labeling itself, or on the insert explaining why this packaging is used, you can direct customers to resources like those from How2Recycle so that they can find recycling locations near them. Also, bring your consumers along on the journey by providing them insight into how your company is continually working on creating more sustainable packaging choices. Ultimately, if a company can understand the impact shipping has on its sustainability efforts, choose the right packaging for the job, and educate its customers on the right packaging choices, it can reduce its carbon footprints and have real, tangible, corroborated results – instead of chasing after a mythical idea of sustainability that never materializes. Because, unlike Bigfoot, sustainability doesn’t need to slip quietly into the forest.

    Clint Smith is Director of Sustainable Packaging, Pregis LLC.

    This article originally appeared in the July/August, 2020 issue of PARCEL.