eCommerce Tips & Trends

6 Tips for Sustainable Order Fulfillment as an eCommerce Business

Beth Owens

by Beth Owens

On 2019 M11 4

by Beth Owens

As consumers, we’ve all had the experience of picking our way through layers of unnecessary packaging.

Unfortunately, this is often part and parcel (pun intended) of the online shopping experience.

Despite increased attention on the issue, sustainable eCommerce packaging strategies remain under-utilized by many businesses.

Understandably, eCommerce businesses want to do everything they can to prevent goods from getting damaged in transit. However, this usually translates to adding more packaging to the order fulfillment process. The end result is increased packaging waste, but often limited improvements to protective capabilities.

A complex packaging design that’s difficult to dispose of responsibly isn’t going to do your business any favors in the long run. For one, it negatively impacts your customer’s post-purchase experience. Worst of all, it also shows a serious lack of consideration towards the impact that packaging waste has on the environment.

Needless to say, having to dispose of this waste is a frustrating exercise for consumers - one that can leave them with negative feelings towards your brand.

Sustainable order fulfillment can be summed up in one word: Efficiency. By making your packaging design as streamlined as possible, you will save on time, resources, and negative press!

What Does Sustainable Order Fulfillment Mean?

Sustainable order fulfillment means considering how you can reduce the impact of your packaging design. Order fulfillment doesn’t have to take place on a massive scale for it to become costly in terms of waste. According to the EPA, packaging is responsible for almost a third of all household waste!

Sustainable eCommerce packaging is most often linked to the environment, but this isn’t the only area it covers. Economic and social considerations also factor into how sustainable your packaging design is!

For example, if your order fulfillment is very time-intensive, this has both economic and social implications for your workers. Moreover, sustainable eCommerce packaging still needs to meet cost and performance requirements. If it doesn’t, then it’s not sustainable!

Why Does Sustainable Order Fulfillment Matter?

It Impacts Brand Perception

Despite being the backbone of the order fulfillment process, packaging design is often an afterthought. Excess or non-recyclable packaging has traditionally been viewed as the responsibility of the customer.  

According to Shorr, just 11 percent of customers are satisfied with the packaging of their eCommerce orders. The main reasons are because packaging is excessive, too difficult to open, or isn’t recyclable. All of these factors will affect the way that customers perceive your brand.

When packaging disposal is difficult or time-consuming, it appears to customers that the brand in question has put little thought into its own delivery experience. Consumers want to feel valued and considered by the brands they support. So, showing no consideration towards how your packaging may inconvenience customers is not going to do your brand perception any favors!

Consumers Care More About Sustainability Than Ever Before

In 2019, there is much higher awareness about issues such as packaging waste and plastic pollution. This is having a measurable knock-on effect on consumer decision-making. According to Nielsen, almost half of U.S shoppers are now changing their purchasing habits to help the environment. A further 81 percent feel that businesses have an obligation to help protect the environment.

Sustainable eCommerce packaging matters because it speaks to every level of consumer knowledge about sustainability. It’s the most tangible expression of a brand’s eco-friendly commitments. In fact, a study by Mckinsey discovered that eco-friendly packaging is the biggest ‘green premium’ that consumers are willing to pay extra for!

With greater numbers of consumers expressing a preference for brands with green practices, a sustainable order fulfillment strategy is a strong statement of your brand’s eco-friendly credentials!

It Saves Your Business Money

‘Sustainable’ has become synonymous with ‘expensive’, but this is a bit of a misnomer. The truth is more often the opposite!

When businesses assess their order fulfillment, they often realize that their current approach costs more than it needs to. By streamlining your strategy, you can cut costs in a variety of areas and save yourself money long-term!

When it comes to sustainability, ‘cost’ means more than just monetary value. Businesses also need to consider what they stand to gain in terms of positive press, or a new segment of customers who are seeking out brands with eco-friendly practices. This makes sustainable eCommerce packaging a major asset for your business!


1. Avoid Over-Packaging

‘Over-packaging’ is where more packaging is used than is necessary to protect a product. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is a widespread problem within eCommerce.

Before you make any design changes, it’s important to consider whether you actually need the amount of packaging you have been using. It’s quite possible that you could get by using a lot less!

Plus, while it may not seem like a lot per package, the cost of excess filler or boxes quickly adds up!

Eliminating this doesn’t just reduce packaging waste and save money - it also saves time by simplifying your order fulfillment. By cutting down the amount of time it takes to put together each package, you are creating a far more sustainable long-term packaging strategy.

2. Decide Whether Boxes Are Necessary For Order Fulfillment

Due to online marketplaces such as Amazon, the brown cardboard box has become a ubiquitous part of online retail. However, they might not be necessary for every online order you receive.

For businesses selling small-sized goods and with smaller order sizes, shipping mailers present a lower impact, and more cost-effective, alternative. Because they are less bulky than boxes, it will also keep your shipping costs down!

If you do need boxes, make sure you are buying the appropriate size. If your boxes are too large, you may end up adopting the ‘Russian Doll effect’ i.e. packing boxes within boxes, or otherwise having to purchase filler materials. Both of these scenarios produce a lot of packaging waste, which is entirely avoidable.

In sum, the right-sized box is the foundation to a sustainable eCommerce packaging design!

3. Eliminate Plastic Packaging Where Possible

As a petroleum-based substance, plastic is a non-renewable resource that takes hundreds of years to break down. Because plastic production far outstrips both the natural biodegrading process and our recycling capabilities, plastic pollution has become a serious environmental issue.

According to National Geographic, only 9 percent of all plastic ever made has been recycled. The rest has ended up in our oceans, forests, and even the food chain.

Your business is performing a major service to the environment by not adding to this problem. Soft plastics, such as shrinkwrap, are particularly harmful as they cannot be recycled as easily as hard plastics. It usually needs to be taken to designated recycling centers, which may not be within easy reach of consumers.

Soft plastic can easily replaced within your order fulfillment strategy. If you are using it to create air cushions, crinkle-cut paper is a great alternative. To wrap up products for extra protection, you can substitute tissue paper or compostable substances such as corn starch and sugarcane.  

Our customer Nia Gould recently undertook the ‘Naked Cards Pledge’ where she stopped using cellophane sleeves for her greeting cards. Because she was already using noissue custom tissue paper, this move eliminated unnecessary packaging from her order fulfillment process.

4. Maximize the Use of Renewable Materials

When it comes to sustainable eCommerce packaging, renewable materials like paper and cardboard are your biggest ally. It’s easy to source and offers a lot of recycling and reuse options. It’s also incredibly versatile and can be used for many different packaging elements, such as:

  • Containers
  • Tissue paper and gift wrap
  • Stickers
  • Packing filler

To make your design even more sustainable, you can choose to use recycled paper or use FSC-certified suppliers. The Forest Stewardship Council certifies that paper has been sourced in the most environmentally sustainable way possible, and so is a widely recognized symbol by consumers.

5. Encourage Reuse By Your Customers

The main reason why packaging causes environmental problems is because it’s usually designed to be single-use. Once a container and its interior packaging has gotten a product safely to its destination, it’s fulfilled its purpose and is thrown away.

In other words, it’s a linear model of production, use, and disposal. This results in mounting waste, and simply isn’t sustainable.

Your business can challenge this by choosing packaging elements which can be reused by customers. For example, wrapping your orders inside branded tote bags is a fun value-added extra which is of genuine use to your customer.

Reusable packaging also comes with other advantages. When your customers use your branded packaging long-term, this provides them with a long term source of brand recognition!

6. Explain Your Order Fulfillment to Customers

If any specific disposal procedures should be taken with your packaging e.g. recycling or composting, it’s very important to make sure that your business communicates this clearly.

Adopting sustainable eCommerce packaging is only the first step. If your customers don’t know about it, then your business cannot ensure responsible disposal. The last thing you want is for your packaging to head off to the landfill!

Consider enclosing packaging inserts with your orders that explain what steps you have taken in your order fulfillment, why you have done it, and what customers can do to help. This adds very little time to your order fulfillment process, and massively increases the odds of eco-friendly disposal or reuse.

By getting customers on board with your eco-friendly efforts, you can have a much wider positive impact on the environment as a business.

About the author:

Beth Owens is the Content Strategist and resident unboxing expert at noissue. Their premium custom tissue paper is acid-free and FSC-certified as being socially and environmentally responsible in its production. Their low minimum order quantities and quick turnarounds mean that they are suited to help everyone, from small independent businesses to Fortune 500 companies.