Paper Apparel Mailer Case Study
Designing a New Packaging Solution to Help Sustainable Brands Ship Apparel Products
A plastic-free alternative to the poly mailer
In recent years, the poly mailer has emerged as the most cost effective way to ship apparel.
Poly mailers are:
Inexpensive (Typically less than one-third of the cost of other shipping solutions)
Lightweight - making it inexpensive to ship to a distribution facility and inexpensive to ship to customers
Shipping 1000 paper mailers for apparel cost $100 from Colorado to New Jersey
Shipping 1000 poly mailers (in the same general size) costs $26
Weather proof (plastic is weather proof by nature!)
Flexible - It easily expands and conforms. This makes it easy operationally for fulfillment teams to pack orders.
Strong and durable - it is difficult to tear and puncture.
Many of these characteristics are unique to plastic (and plastic film in particular), which is why an average of 300 million tons of plastic is produced globally each year, 40 percent of which is used for packaging.
There is a heated debate in the industry over whether plastic or paper is the preferred ecological choice—and EcoEnclose strongly believes in the merits of 100 percent recycled poly packaging as a sustainable packaging choice whose carbon footprint is lower than that of paper.
However, there is no doubt that plastic (even 100 percent recycled plastic) is made from nonrenewable resources and presents more problematic end-of-life characteristics than paper. While paper packaging (including paper mailers and corrugated boxes) is readily curbside recyclable, poly mailers must be taken to a store drop off program and are more likely to be downcycled into composite lumber. And while poly mailers, specifically, are highly unlikely to end up as ocean pollution, there is an overall tragic problem of plastic pollution in the oceans, which is causing trauma to ocean health and marine life.
Now, many businesses are looking to avoid plastic altogether. In 2019 alone, 120 million individuals and businesses participated in Plastic Free July, suggesting that a focus and commitment on plastic reduction is becoming a mainstream movement.
Developing a plastic-free solution
In 2018, eco-minded businesses, including prAna, asked us to develop an effective, plastic-free alternative to poly mailers that could safely and securely ship apparel.
There were (and still are) several paper-based mailers on the market, including our 100% Recycled Kraft Mailer, which are typically made with 105# paper (approximately 10 pt) that are great for shipping lightweight items. Companies focused on being plastic-free were gravitating to these as a replacement for poly mailers; however, they were finding that when they were shipping bulkier, heavier goods (two pairs of jeans, a jacket, etc.), the mailers occasionally tore in transit and, at times, the contents were getting dirty or damaged.
Just a few weeks ago, our own team received a package in a paper-based mailer that was torn (the contents were totally fine and wonderful!) and we experienced firsthand what issues this can cause for sustainability-focused brands.
So, while the 100% Recycled Kraft Mailer is an excellent plastic-free alternative for many apparel brands, especially those shipping t-shirts or single, lightweight articles of clothing, there wasn’t a great option for the heavier goods circulating in ecommerce.
In response to this problem, we began designing a paper mailer that could address this gap in the market.
We did consider other materials and ultimately found that, currently, 100 percent recycled paper is the best material to work with.
We know some companies might switch to bioplastic, but we strongly believe that bioplastic does not mean plastic-free. The most concerning issues related to plastic are just as evident with bioplastic (e.g. pollution and clogging up oceans as commercially viable “biodegradable” plastic does not generally degrade rapidly in an ocean environment).
Some businesses are exploring hemp paper or burlap-based products as potential solutions. However, hemp paper is extremely cost-prohibitive and not a tenable solution for the vast majority of brands. Burlap sacks (including hemp sacks) are neither recyclable nor commercially compostable as they take more than 120 days to fully biodegrade.
Paper, on the other hand, is a renewable (and readily available) naturally biodegradable material that is easy to recycle and effective for ecommerce packaging.
We knew that since we were using paper, and refused to layer or line it with plastic in a way that would make it difficult or even impossible to recycle, some of the inherent issues with paper would remain - it would be heavier, thicker and more expensive than a poly mailer. It would not be 100 percent weather resistant.
However, there were other issues we felt we could address, and sought to offer a solution that solved the following:
It had to be stronger than a kraft mailer, with greater puncture resistance
Since paper isn’t inherently flexible and conforming, the paper mailer had to have a structural design that would allow it to expand and conform to its contents. This would ensure there wasn’t unnecessary pressure and creasing of the mailer, which could lead to rips and tears.
The mailer had to be operationally easy to use. A shipping box, which requires assembly before it can be filled and shipped out, was out of the question for brands and fulfillment houses whose entire operation was built around mailers.
Creating a prototype and taking it to market
First, we created a prototype in-house, cutting and folding existing mailers and paperboard to achieve the basic design we envisioned.
Then, we met with a domestic manufacturing partner who was interested in developing the prototype.
During research and development, we tested ten iterations of the paper mailer. Here are the features and design aspects we addressed in each iteration:
Creases on the top and bottom: The creases allow for 3D expansion, even in a flat mailer. This was huge. We adjusted the creasing from 0.75”-1.5” from the edge to play with how much expansion is needed.
Paperboard thickness: too light and the mailer would face the same issues as the thinner Kraft Mailer, and could puncture easily and be less protective. Too thick and it would be so cumbersome to work with and would be prone to creases at pressure points that could lead to tears. Also, the thicker the paperboard, the more expensive it would be to produce.
To gusset or not to gusset: A side gusset adds excellent expansion capabilities. However, it isn’t always needed or practical - it adds cost and may add more bulk, weight and expansion than the mailer needs.
Adhesive style and strength
Testing sizes/dimensions, and specifically, ensuring we had a size large enough for bulky, heavy apparel shipments
How we tested products:
Filled test mailers to the brim and literally played catch with them
Dropped them from a 10 foot elevation, threw the mailers in the air and let them fall on the floor. Anyone who has seen a delivery driver load/unload packages knows this is quite possibly how your packages will get handled!
Shipped the mailers across the country stuffed with contents to see what condition they would arrive in
We knew we landed on the right product variation when we found that the mailer actually became more pliable the more it was tossed around, laid flat when a bunch of mailers were stacked on top of each other, and looked great even when shipped across the country, stuffed to the brim with apparel.
Taking the Paper Apparel Mailer to market
When we took the paper mailer to market in March of 2019, it was still in testing, so we asked every company who ordered the apparel mailer to give us honest, constructive feedback. In conjunction, we shipped many of our own products in the mailer and asked recipients to snap a photo of the received package; in return for their input, we gave them a $10 store credit.
We received overwhelmingly positive feedback. Folks who were struggling with kraft mailers or hadn’t felt confident enough to make the leap yet found that the paper apparel mailer worked wonders for their packaging and shipping needs.
To date, our customers have used more than 60,000 mailers to ship their products; with largely positive feedback. EcoEnclose has also shipped over 1500 orders using apparel mailers.
"We had been looking for a way out of plastic for a while and found that our options were shockingly few. When it came down to it, the apparel mailers from EcoEnclose checked every box we needed. They're super durable, look great, are made from 100% recycled content and the pricing is very competitive. Seemed too good to be true, it wasn't. We’ve had zero issues since moving to the recycled apparel mailers. They're tough through delivery and easy on the planet; just what we were looking for." - Atom Whitman, Director of E-Commerce at UNIF
In our first market run, we discovered that the high level of recycled content and the uneven nature of the mailer (once packed with apparel) presented some issues with adhesive. A few companies offered feedback that they were reinforcing the adhesive with tape or a sticker. In our second run of mailers, we used a higher tack adhesive and inverted the mailer for a smoother finish that would adhere better.
Opportunities for continued improvement:
Using Algae Ink on the Paper Apparel Mailer print
Improving the sustainability of the adhesive release liner
Continuing to add sizes to accommodate varied products and companies
Partner With Us
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 looking to go plastic-free with your packaging?
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 you're looking for a plastic-free alternative to poly mailers, we’d love to work with you! Contact us at email@example.com.