Creating the Sustainable Packaging Category
How cloth diapers led to a sustainable packaging category
In 2005, Erin Kimmett was living an eco-friendly lifestyle and cloth diapering her own babies when she had the idea to produce a cute yet sustainable line of cloth diapers for other eco-conscious families. When she founded the online cloth diaper brand, Thirsties, Erin was quick to discover the terrible packaging options available. When it came to actually packaging and shipping the diapers, the only options were flimsy, China-made clear poly bags and poly mailers, or standard shipping boxes - which were (and still are) heavier, bulkier, and bigger than what she needed. Not to mention, they’re typically virgin, which means they’re made with less than 35% recycled material.
Recognizing that poly mailers were (and still are) the lightest and most eco-friendly way to ship, Erin was determined to find poly mailers made with recycled content.
But her search turned up empty.
At the time, small businesses could order from Uline or office supplies stores, where the mailers were either totally virgin or up to 30% recycled-- which, in the world of sustainability, is a vague and non-transparent claim. Manufacturers didn’t know their Asian-based suppliers well, and they couldn’t verify the recycled content claims they were making. There was no transparency in the supply chain.
As ecommerce marketplaces like Amazon began to distribute mailers, the landscape became a race to the bottom - the only mailers available had zero eco-friendly characteristics and cheap, flimsy structures. Companies prioritized ‘low cost at all costs’ - unsurprising given that Amazon was one of the least sustainable large companies in the marketplace at the time.
This packaging landscape meant that Thirsties (and other companies who built their brand on sustainability) had to compromise on their values when shipping their thoughtfully made products. This, at a time when ecommerce and eco-conscious businesses were exploding.
The world’s first 100% recycled poly mailer is born
This product market gap led us to meeting with as many domestic manufacturers of flexible film as possible. But using recycled content is (pardon our French) a royal pain in the ass for manufacturers. The material has inconsistencies and imperfections, which can lead to issues and delays on manufacturing equipment. Ensuring that equipment does not break or halt production is the biggest concern for a large manufacturer. The issues can be resolved but it takes time, testing and resources, and in 2012, some manufacturers felt that there wasn’t really a market for recycled poly mailers.
At the time of our research and development, sales of environmentally friendly products in the U.S. exceeded $40 billion in 2012 (Cohen, 2013) and ecommerce sales grew 21.1% to top $1 trillion for the first time (eMarketer, 2013).
We knew there was a market for sustainable packaging.
Finally, we found a manufacturer who was willing to ‘take a flyer’ on it.
The manufacturer was willing to test recycled content, until we achieved 88% recycled content (25% post consumer waste).
This led to the birth of EcoEnclose and our first line of poly mailers in 2013. And we never stopped investing in the product - adding eco-friendly features and more recycled content. As of summer 2019, our poly mailers are 100% recycled, 50% post-consumer resin, have a dual peel and seal feature for reusability and are recyclable with flexible film (suitable for grocery drop-off).
Since the launch of our poly mailers, we’ve committed to empowering ecommerce to be a force for positive environmental change. We’ve seen first-hand that ecommerce is where some of the most innovative and ecological businesses launch and grow. And how these businesses package, ship and present their products is essential to their brand and values.
In fact, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management, in their Sustainability Initiative, has measured sustainability innovation by interviewing global executives for a multi-year period. Their most recent study, released in 2011, found that:
68 percent of respondents say their organizations increased their commitment to sustainability in the past year. That’s a dramatic increase from 2009, when only 25 percent of respondents said that. (Brokaw, 2011).
67 percent say that sustainability strategies are necessary to be competitive. That’s a 12 percentage point increase from last year. (Brokaw, 2011).
Sustainability is increasingly important to top management, survey respondents say: 28 percent percent believe it’s a permanent and core strategic consideration and 42 percent say that although it’s not a core consideration, it is nonetheless on the agenda to stay. (Brokaw, 2011).
An Incubator for Sustainable Brands and Innovative Products
We’ve come a long way since the early days of shipping cloth diapers. Our business was born from the recycled poly mailer but we haven’t stopped there. Since the launch of our recycled poly mailers, we continue to improve our products for eco-conscious businesses and help manufacturers test and bring their products to market. As a sustainability research and development incubator, we help take earth friendly packaging and innovation to the next level.
Sourcing sustainable packaging for our customers
Soon after we launched, we were flooded with requests for eco-friendly shipping boxes. We invested in specialized equipment and processes that could cut boxes (on demand) from 100% recycled corrugated made with 95%+ post-consumer waste. This new offering not only gave companies access to 100% recycled, curbside recyclable boxes, but also to boxes that were custom cut to the perfect size and style for their product - ensuring that they did not have to use excess packaging paper, “filler plastic pillows” or ship excess air.
Shortly thereafter, those same ecological brand conscious companies requested printed packaging. As ecommerce expanded, those companies realized the critical role of the physical shipped package in the customer experience. At the time, printed packaging was only available in high volumes (5000+ boxes or mailers). We intentionally developed processes and partnerships so we could print all of our mailers and boxes at relatively low volumes.
And it didn’t stop there.
Biodegradable tape was next. When companies started asking for biodegradable tape, we ran a domestic search and had long conversations with manufacturers, but it didn’t lead anywhere. This speed bump led us to our first (and one of our few products) that is manufactured abroad (in Spain): a cello based tape with renewable and biodegradable adhesive (or cello tape).
Bringing innovative products to market
In 2013, a local startup - Living Ink Technologies - was experimenting with algae-based ink. Developing the perfect ink is a complicated and iterative process. When they reached out to us about their mission to develop sustainable pigments grown from algae, we became a research and development partner for them. We tested the algae-based ink and reported our findings. Now, Living Ink has developed the world’s first truly sustainable, renewable, biodegradable algae-derived printing ink. Currently, we’re in research and development for new Algae Inks™ color pigments.
Zero Waste Liner
When we released 100% recycled stickers, which is a 100% recycled facestock on a standard silicone release liner, we simultaneously launched our Sticker Liner Take Back Program. Soon after, we connected with a manufacturer who was patenting a new process to create a sticker/label on an uncoated release liner that is 100% recycled and 100% recyclable- the first and only of its kind. EcoEnclose was able to bring the Zero Waste Liner to market quickly and directly to a base of sustainable companies who can make changes to their supply-chain rapidly, without the bureaucratic decision making of so many large, less eco-focused brands.
The plastic-free wave is upon us and it is an exciting time! As companies, such as prAna, have responded to the call to go plastic-free by moving from poly mailer to kraft mailers, they’ve found that some kraft mailers were ripping and tearing. This led us down the path of designing a strong paper alternative to poly mailers that could hold up in transit, and provide some of the flexibility and expansion of plastic film.
Ecommerce as a force for good
This month alone, one million ecommerce shipments will go out in EcoEnclose 100% Recycled Poly Mailers. This is about 18,000 lbs of 100% recycled and recyclable plastic, instead of virgin content, that is made in the USA and not China.
By using 100% recycled plastic instead of virgin plastic, these mailers saved:
55,000 Kwh of energy
152 barrels of oil
280 cubic yards of landfill space
And, if these bags are all recycled (after they are reused, of course!), 70 cubic yards of landfill space will be saved.
In addition to the direct environmental impact that has been made with all of our recycled and recyclable packaging, EcoEnclose has proven the degree of innovation that is possible in the ecommerce shipping category.
Seeing our success first-hand has encouraged our manufacturing partners invest in more eco-friendly innovations, as well as opened their minds to our suggestions on future opportunities. After we (internally) mastered printing with Algae Ink, three of our partners agreed to use the new technology and, in turn, successfully printed with black algae ink. This research and development has helped Living Ink Technologies further refine their formulations and growth.
Partner with us
One of the best (yet most challenging) facets of EcoEnclose is that we never rest on our laurels. With the introduction of each new product or ecological innovation, we celebrate for a brief minute before it’s back to the drawing board. As we look forward, we’re pushing ourselves to incorporate even more post-consumer waste in our products, including reclaimed ocean waste; to make it easier and cleaner to recycle our products; to make the “finishing touches” of our products even more eco-friendly (e.g. recycled/recyclable release liners on our mailer peel and seals).
As business owners ourselves, we know that operating an ethical, environmentally-responsible company is tough. But here’s the thing we love about eco-friendly packaging: earth friendly packaging helps you grow your brand and sales, while simultaneously doing right by Mother Earth. As we continue to empower ecommerce brands to be a force for positive environmental change, that means we’re always in research and development so we can test new products and bring them to market, as well as empower businesses to make environmentally smart packaging choices.
Let’s work together:
Are you a manufacturer interested in advancing your capabilities and testing our new earth friendly materials or designs?
Are you developing a new earth friendly material, formulation or manufacturing process -- but aren’t sure how to bring it to market?
Are you a sustainable ecommerce business who prides yourself in making thoughtful, earth friendly decisions across your entire business? Do you stay on the cutting edge of sustainability?
If any of these describe you or your business, we’d love to work with you! Contact us at [email protected]. Continue reading to learn more about our specific innovations and partnerships.