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Definitive Guide to Reusable Packaging for Ecommerce

DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO REUSABLE ECOMMERCE PACKAGING

Next generation eCommerce packaging is reusable, meaning it is designed to be used multiple times before reaching its end-of-life. But is reusable packaging right for your business? Is it more sustainable than traditional packaging such as poly mailers? Read on for all of this and more.

Overview All About Reusable Packaging

For anyone who prefers watching over reading, check out our Video Guide to Reusable Packaging. You'll see our ReEnclose Mailers in action, learn more about how our reusable mailers can be customized, and understand when reusable is (and isn't!) better for the planet than single-use shipping solutions.

What is Reusable Packaging?

Most of today’s packaging landscape is single-use, meaning that it was designed to be used once and then discarded. It is important to note that some single-use packaging, like a water bottle or a box, or a dual-use poly mailer, can be used more than once, and we have always encouraged our brands to reuse their packaging. However, because they were all designed for a limited useful life, they fall into the “single-use” category.
 
Reusable packaging describes any packaging designed to be reused many, many times. When reusable packaging is done effectively, it should lead to less waste, less resource consumption, and lower carbon emissions than single-use counterparts.

Examples of Reusable Packaging

  • Individual reusable packaging you, as a consumer, purchase to replace single-use versions: Coffee mugs, water bottles, tote bags, glass mason jars, etc. Rather than accepting single-use packaging from a store or restaurant, you simply bring your reusable packaging to be filled.
    • Examples: visuals (Refill Store, Totes at Grocery Store, Bringing Mugs to Starbucks)
  • Industrial reusable packaging describes items like reusable pallets and plastic bins used in wholesale and supply chain transport. These solutions serve as reusable alternatives to corrugated cardboard, pallets, etc.
  • Returnable customer-facing packaging that you (as a consumer) give back to the brand or a brand network after you have gone through whatever you’ve purchased. Historically, glass bottles have operated with this type of model. You would buy your milk or soda in glass bottles. The price of the glass packaging is baked into the product, and when you return the items, you get credited this amount.
This last category of reusable packaging - returnable customer-facing solutions - is seeing tremendous innovation, experimentation, and energy.
 
For example, Loop has introduced an innovative spin on returnable customer-facing packaging for restaurants. They currently partner with companies such as Burger King. Customers receive their meals in Loop’s reusable containers. Customers receive their deposit back when the containers are returned (typically in deposit boxes outside participating restaurants). Loop then cleans and sanitizes this packaging to be used by the restaurant again and again. Other startups, such as ClubZero, have a different take on a similar model. Customers sign up for ClubZero similar to how they might sign up for a citywide bike-share program. They can then dine at participating “host” restaurants and access ClubZero packaging across this network.
In this guide, we are focused primarily on Reusable eCommerce Packaging as an alternative to current single (sometimes dual) use eCommerce packaging solutions - poly mailers, paper mailers, and corrugated shipping boxes. Reusable eCommerce packaging falls into the third category of “reusable packaging” - packaging shipped to customers that customers then return/send back to be used again.
 
When you peel the layers back on this simple definition of “Reusable eCommerce Packaging,” it becomes clear there are many complexities and nuances to consider. Reusable packaging is certainly not for all brands and experiences. In some situations, it is a lot more damaging to the planet than single-use packaging (primarily if the single-use packaging is recycled and recyclable). In some cases, it may make sense but is too costly or operationally complex to implement soon. And in some situations, it is a perfect fit.
 
That’s why we developed this guide.
 
We hope this Guide to Reusable Packaging for eCommerce can help you become an expert on the topic so you can make the right decisions for your brand and operation.
 
Contact us anytime to learn more and discuss whether or not this makes sense for your business: [email protected]

How Does Reusable Packaging Work for eCommerce?

At a basic level: Your orders are shipped in reusable mailers. Your customers receive their items and send the mailers back (either full of goods or empty). The mailers are then used for new shipments.  

There are a few different approaches to reusable packaging to shipping their orders from a brand’s perspective.

Brand Managed

Brands can own their reusable mailers and manage the logistics of shipping with them, receiving them back, and resending new orders in them.
 

Model 1: Mailers Are Sent Back Full of Goods - In this approach, customers will generally be sending mailers back with goods. The simplest manifestation of this model is with subscription apparel businesses. Brands send their customers a handful of apparel options. Their customers try their options, choose what they want to keep, and send everything else back to the brand. In this scenario, customers have already been used to sending back goods each month (perhaps in a dual-use poly mailer), and it is an easy transition for them to use their reusable mailers to do so. Other scenarios include clothing rental businesses and companies who want to receive discarded goods back for recycling and repair with every order they ship.

Model 2: Mailers Are Generally Sent Back Empty (Sometimes With Returns) - In this approach, a small subset of customers might be using their mailer to send back an item for exchange or return. However, customers would be asked to ship empty packaging back for most orders.

Network Managed

Brands are part of a network of companies that utilize the same reusable packaging. A brand uses mailers to ship their orders, and then mailers are sent back (by end consumers) to central distribution points, which are then distributed back out to the network of brands.
 
Model 3: Mailers Are Generally Sent Back Empty (Sometimes With Returns) - From a customer’s perspective, this experience is very similar to Model 2. They receive their orders and then either use their mailers to send in returns or exchanges or send back empty mailers to be used again. The main difference is where the mailers are going! Typically, if a product is being returned, customers would send the mailers and products back to the brand itself. Still, the packaging would be shipped to the closest “node” within the network in all other situations.

 

 

Model 1: Brand Managed, Packaging Shipped Back Full of Goods

Model 2: Brand Managed, Packaging Typically Shipped Back Empty

Model 3: Network Managed, Packaging Typically Shipped Back Empty

Pricing and Ownership

Brands will typically “own” the packaging - purchasing it out right or financing it.

Brands will typically “own” the packaging - purchasing it out right or financing it.

Often, brands pay a “per use” rental model, with some fee for non-returns.

Return Shipping

The cost of shipping product back is already part of the company’s business model.

There is an extra cost associated with shipping empty packaging back - est at $3.50 or more in shipping per return.

There is an extra cost associated with shipping empty packaging back - est at $3.50 or more in shipping per return.

Return Rates

Rate at which customers actually return their packaging is very high, as they are already used to doing so.

Rate at which customers return packaging will vary, as this is a new expectation.

Rate at which customers return packaging will vary, as this is a new expectation.

Who Pays and How?

Minimal added cost is incurred for businesses and/or their customers.

The total cost of the packaging may be higher per shipment than the packaging being replaced, and the return shipping costs of packaging is quite high. Businesses may have their customers to pay for some of the added cost, and may give customers a chance to opt into this model.

The total cost of the packaging may be higher per shipment than the packaging being replaced, and the return shipping costs of packaging is quite high. Businesses may have their customers to pay for some of the added cost, and may give customers a chance to opt into this model.

Operational Implications

Minimal operational impact. There would be a new focus on cleaning mailers and keeping them clean - as part of the warehouse.

Requires the brand’s warehouse to receive used mailers back, track what customers sent them back and how many are in-house at any given time, and clean mailers for reuse.

Requires brands to work with network to request more packaging at replenishment thresholds. Requires brands to align with the network’s standards for cleanliness and wear / tear, and does not allow for custom branding as many brands will share the same packaging.

Environmental Implications

Highly likely that reusable packaging is better for the planet than single-use or dual-use packaging.

Environmental advantages compared to single-use packaging are uncertain - will depend on customer behavior, brand operations, distance that packaging travels, etc.

Environmental advantages compared to single-use packaging are uncertain - though more likely than with Model 2.

Customer Engagement Models

All reusable packaging requires more effort from end customers. Customers have to remember to bring their reusable totes to the grocery store or their mugs to the coffee shop and then clean and store these items at home. They are also more expensive to start than single-use options, and their cost savings accrue over time, based on how many times the durable packaging is used.
 
Similarly, reusable mailers make some demands of your customers as they have to take steps to return their packaging - putting the return label on, scheduling the pickup, etc. Additionally, some brands have asked their customers to either share in the initial cost implications of reusable packaging or be asked to put up some funds that help hold them accountable for their returns. For example, some brands enhance their checkout experience to give customers the option to receive orders in reusable packaging. This option could trigger an added cost to the order. Brands could decide to use this as a deposit and credit this amount back once their mailers are returned.
 
With Models 1 and 2, it is crucial to think through your customers’ expectations and determine if and how to invest them into your new packaging and shipping strategy.

How is Reusable eCommerce Packaging Designed and Made?

There is no one way to design reusable packaging for shipping!
 
Today’s most common type of reusable eCommerce packaging is made from soft fabrics designed to replace a poly or paper mailer.

Soft Reusable Mailers

Materials: Potential materials include vinyl, polypropylene, PET/polyester fabrics, and naturally derived organic materials. Characteristics to consider when finding the suitable materials for your reusable mailers include lightweight (to ensure your packaging has a better environmental footprint than single-use alternatives); repelling of dirt, dust, and water; durable; and easily wipeable, etc. Additionally, the amount of recycled content, particularly post-consumer waste, is always essential!
 
Features: Reusable mailers have a variety of essential elements, including the sleeve(s) for shipping labels, closures (typically zippers or velcro), the design of the closure, characteristics that allow mailers to be folded down and right-sized, internal or external pockets, anti-theft elements on the closure, and more.
 
Sizing: Reusable mailers can often be “sized down,” meaning they can be folded down to fit whatever they contain. This feature may make it tempting for brands to make their reusable packaging bigger than it needs, knowing it can be right-sized for each shipment. However, remember this - using as little material as you can but still making sure your mailer works well for your business is critical from an environmental perspective. For example, if you replace a 12x15” poly mailer with a 14x19” reusable mailer, you’re using even more material than is needed. That reusable mailer will have to go through more cycles than if you had used a 12x15” reusable mailer to have a net neutral impact on the planet.
 
Aesthetics: A mailer’s look and feel is defined by how it is structurally designed, the material used, the color of the mailer, and much more.

Reusable Boxes

While reusable boxes are certainly an option, they are less common:
 
(1) corrugated boxes are already recycled at a very high level, and the market for recycled corrugate is robust
(2) it is more difficult for a reusable alternative to provide the size and functional versatility that most companies that ship with boxes need
(3) it is more expensive and bulky to ship a flattened, folded box back to a brand or network node than a soft, cushioned mailer.
 
Despite these short-term challenges, we continue to see interest in this space! We encourage companies shipping in boxes who want to consider a reusable alternative to reach out to work on the strategy, model, and design that will meet your business’s needs.

What Happens to Reusable Packaging at the End of It's Useful Life?

Some reusable packaging - like glass jars, Nalgene bottles, or stainless steel coffee mugs - have a long life. We can use them thousands of times before they need to be replaced and typically end their lives by getting lost or broken.
 
Reusable mailers have a somewhat shorter lifespan. We’ve seen reusable mailers market themselves as having thousands of uses, but a statement like that is highly misleading!
 
We have tested several different reusable mailer options shipping them to and from the East Coast from our Colorado location many times. Unfortunately, we’ve found that mailers - however durable they are made - get scuffed, experience small tears over time, and get a generally worn down look after a while. Occasionally, they may tear to a point where they are unusable. We found this with all mailers tested, even those that claim to be usable for thousands of uses. Anyone who has witnessed how single-use mailers are treated in transit won’t be surprised!
 
Reusable mailers will likely last anywhere from a dozen uses to 50 or maybe even 100. After that, however, brands will determine that they are no longer high enough quality to ship with at some point - either because they have failed functionally or because they are too scuffed up to represent a brand’s aesthetic. At that point, what happens to the mailers? This is a critical question!
 
Unfortunately, most reusable mailers are destined for landfills at the end of their useful life. However, we recognize that brands moving to reusable mailers typically aim to eliminate plastic waste and likely don’t want their mailers to end up in a landfill. Therefore, EcoEnclose takes ReEnclose Mailers back when they are no longer usable, so we can reuse and then recycle them. 

Can Reusable Packaging be Custom Branded?

When reusable packaging is managed/owned by the brand itself (Model 1 or Model 2, as outlined above), bags can be custom branded! In Model 3, many brands share mailers, making customization far more complex.
 
When working with EcoEnclose, you can customize almost every aspect of your reusable mailer: material, color, and size. Additionally, your bags can be custom printed to showcase your brand values and provide instructions to your customers on what to do with their packaging. Mailers can be digitally printed (which offers a wide range of print capabilities) or heat pressed (which provides a more narrow set of print capabilities).
 
While Model 3 may not allow for complete customization and branding of your mailers, you can enhance the delivery experience through internal packaging, including stickers, notecards, and protective wrap that can highlight your unique brand attributes.

Is Reusable Packaging Better for the Planet?

This is the million-dollar question! As with all things related to sustainability, the answer is - it depends.
 
What is your goal? First, any brand asking this question should clarify its sustainable packaging goals. For example, is the goal to minimize waste or carbon emissions, maximize recycled content or circularity, etc? Once you are clear on this, recognize the critical reusable packaging concepts that drive this analysis:
 
Input Materials of the Base Case and Reusable Packaging Alternative: What is your current packaging made from, and how much recycled content does it have? What material are you considering for your reusable packaging, and how much recycled content does it have?
 
Weight of the Base Case and Reusable Packaging Alternative: How much material / how heavy is your base case packaging and your reusable packaging?
 
Manufacturing Location of the Base Case and Reusable Packaging Alternative 
 
Return Rate of Reusable Packaging and (where relevant) Reuse Rate of Base Case: For your reusable packaging option, you’ll want to think through how likely your packaging will be returned (either to you or to the network). A 50% return rate would mean that a lot of packaging is only used a few times. A 95%+ return rate would mean that most of your packaging would be used many times. You’ll also want to consider how frequently your base case single-use packaging is used for returned or a second shipment.
 
How Many Cycles (On Average) Until the Reusable Mailer is No Longer Functional / Usable: Even if the packaging has a 100% return rate, after a while, reusable mailers are no longer functional or appropriate for shipments. Therefore, you’ll want to consider the average number of cycles a mailer is - on average - likely to be able to withstand before becoming unusable. A cycle represents one shipment of the package to the customer and then back to the brand or network node.
 
How Much and What Type of Cleaning is Required: Does the reusable packaging needs a deep clean with each cycle, or can it repel dirt, dust, and moisture successfully enough to need minimal cleaning between cycles? Cleaning requires energy and resources to be factored into a nuanced analytical comparison between options.
 
Distance Mailers Need to Travel to Be Returned (in Models 2 and 3): Unlike the single-use base case packaging option, reusable mailers must travel from the customer back to the brand or a centralized network location to be reused. The carbon footprint of this added shipping should be factored into in-depth and nuanced analysis efforts.
 
End of Life of Base Case Mailer and Reusable Packaging Alternative: Is your base case mailer typically recycled or generally landfilled? Will your reusable mailer likely be landfilled, or can it be recycled?

Sample Comparisons

Note that the following analysis is based on greenhouse gas emissions and identifying the “cycles” that a reusable mailer must go through to achieve the same emissions as the poly mailers you might be considering replacing.
 
Scenario 1: EcoEnclose Recycled Mailer vs Lightweight ReEnclose Mailer
 
 

Single-Use Mailer

Reusable Mailer

Material

LDPE (poly film)

Polyester fabric

Size / Weight

12x15” (2.5 mil) = 0.036 lbs / mailer

12x15”, 200D = 0.126 lbs / mailer

Recycled Content

100% Recycled

100% Recycled

End of Life

90% are recycled, 10% are landfilled

90% are recycled, 10% are landfilled

Important assumptions that were made for these calculations: (1) Mailers are not undergoing intense cleaning (beyond basic wipe downs at fulfillment centers); (2) the carbon footprint of shipping to send back the reusable mailer is negligible; (3) the poly mailers are only being used once, even though they have a dual seal strip for a second use.
Key Takeaway: In Scenario 1, the lightweight, reusable mailer needs to go through an average of 4+ cycles to be environmentally preferred (based on GHG emissions) to the 100% recycled poly mailer base case.
Achieving 4+ average cycles rely on a few key variables:
 
  1. The durability of the mailer such that it does not break or tear in its first four cycles
  2. The rate at which your customers are able and willing to send back the packaging
  3. Your company’s willingness to use mailers after they fray or get scuffed up.
Let’s evaluate each of these three measures against the breakeven of achieving an average of four cycles:
 
  1. Our ReEnclose Mailers would easily withstand this many uses without any functional damage, as would most reusable packaging options.
  2. About 74% of your customers would have to send back their packaging (i.e., 26% of your mailers could be lost / not sent back with each cycle) to get to an average use rate of four cycles. “Model 1” businesses, in which customers are shipping back goods no matter what packaging they receive their orders in, will quickly achieve these rates of packaging returns, as customers are already used to shipping goods back. For Model 2 and Model 3 businesses, customers may not be as likely to send back packaging. However, the threshold of getting 74% of your packaging back each cycle is relatively low. Eco-conscious consumers may achieve these send-back rates, especially if they are given the proper guidance and incentives.
  3. While your packaging will inevitably show some wear and tear after four or more shipments, it is unlikely this level would turn off eco-conscious brands and their consumers.

A CRITICAL NOTE ON AVERAGE CYCLES

It is important to remember that achieving an average use rate of four cycles means that many of your packages must be used significantly more than that (because some are likely to be lost or damaged before reaching nine cycles).
 
Brands can’t stop using their mailers after four cycles simply because their packaging has reached this level! Brands must be comfortable with the wear and tear that mailers go through after 10, 11, and 12 cycles.
 
Instead, brands would be using their mailers as many times as possible, discarding them only when they are unusable. Brands would ideally track all of their packaging and quantify the uses of each, working to achieve the highest average cycles possible. Let’s say you have 100 mailers that get shipped out, and 76% of them come back to you each time - which is the return rate needed in the above example. The following chart shows a distribution of the number of mailers that would go through different cycle rates - 24 mailers would only be used once, 18 would be used twice, 14 would be used three times, and so on. To achieve the average cycle rate of four, brands must continue using the mailers that return well past four cycles - with seven of the mailers being used at least ten times! As a brand, you must be willing to allow those mailers to be used as many times as possible! In this scenario, if the brand stopped using ALL mailers after four cycles, the average cycle rate would only be 2.7!
 
Scenario 2: EcoEnclose Recycled Mailer vs Heavy Duty ReEnclose Mailer
 
 

Single-Use Mailer

Reusable Mailer

Material

LDPE

Polyester

Size / Weight

12x15” (2.5 mil) = 0.036 lbs / mailer

12x15”, 600D = 0.288 lbs / mailer

Recycled Content

100% Recycled

100% Recycled

End of Life

90% are recycled, 10% are landfilled

90% are recycled, 10% are landfilled

Important assumptions that were made for these calculations: (1) Mailers are not undergoing intense cleaning (beyond basic wipe downs at fulfillment centers); (2) the carbon footprint of shipping to send back the reusable mailer is negligible; (3) the poly mailers are only being used once, even though they have a dual seal strip for a second use.
Key Takeaway: In Scenario 2, the thick reusable mailer needs to go through 9+ cycles to be environmentally preferred (based on GHG emissions) to the 100% recycled poly mailer base case.
Let’s evaluate the same three measures described above against this new breakeven of 9 cycles:
 
  1. Achieving an average of 9+ cycles without functional damage is feasible with our heavy-duty ReEnclose Mailers.
  2. 89% of your customers would have to send back their packaging (i.e., 11% of your mailers could be lost / not sent back each cycle) to get to an average use rate of 9 cycles. Again, “Model 1” businesses are likely to achieve these high rates of return. However, model 2 and 3 businesses may see loss rates higher than 11%. Again, effectively structuring the cost, incentive, and convenience of the send-back steps will be critical to achieving such a low loss rate.
  3. At nine cycles (the equivalent of 18 total shipments!), it is likely to show up in wear and tear on the packaging. Many packages will need to go through more than nine cycles to break even. Therefore, brands will need to determine, based on their values and their desired customer experience, how comfortable they are sending orders out in packaging that has been used so many times. The following chart shows how many mailers, out of 100, would go through each cycle rate to achieve an average cycle rate of 9+ uses.
 
Scenario 3: EcoEnclose Recycled Mailer vs. Larger Medium Thickness ReEnclose Mailer
 
Some brands we have spoken with have expressed interest in securing a large, one-size-fits-all reusable mailer that can be right-sized with buttons or velcro for each shipment. I recently received a shipment of socks in a 14x19” reusable mailer that was velcroed down to size.
This approach creates some challenges from a sustainability standpoint because you are using so much more material than your reusable mailer needs. The following scenario shows this in action.
 
 

Base Case

Reusable Mailer

Material

LDPE

Polyester

Size / Weight

6x9” (2.5 mil) = 0.036 lbs / mailer

12x15”, 400D = 0.126 lbs / mailer

Recycled Content

100% Recycled

100% Recycled

End of Life

90% are recycled, 10% are landfilled

90% are recycled, 10% are landfilled

Important assumptions that were made for these calculations: (1) Mailers are not undergoing intense cleaning (beyond basic wipe downs at fulfillment centers); (2) the carbon footprint of shipping to send back the reusable mailer is negligible; (3) the poly mailers are only being used once, even though they have a dual seal strip for a second use.
Key Takeaway: In Scenario 3, the medium weight reusable mailer through an average of at least 25 cycles to be environmentally preferred (based on GHG emissions) to the base case, appropriately sized 100% recycled poly mailer.
Achieving an average of 25+ uses is undoubtedly feasible, but it means the mailers have to withstand many trips (at the hands of many, many UPS workers!) and have to be sent back by your customers 96% of the time! This high threshold for reuse cycles becomes much more difficult to ensure and reminds us why it is so important to be reasonable about the size of your reusable mailer.
 
Additional Scenarios
 
When comparing reusable mailers to single-use alternatives, there are many scenarios to compare! So here are just a few more to help you understand the variables to consider.
 
 

Single-Use Mailer

Reusable Mailer

Avg Cycles Needed to Break Even

Virgin Poly Mailer, Virgin Reusable Mailer

Virgin LDPE. 12x15” = 0.036 lbs

All other baseline variables above constant.

Virgin polyester. 12x15” = 0.234 lbs

Medium thickness (400D)

All other baseline variables above constant.

8 (13% loss rate)

Recycled Poly Mailer, Virgin Reusable Mailer

Recycled LDPE. 12x15” = 0.036 lbs

All other baseline variables above constant.

Virgin polyester. 12x15” = 0.234 lbs

Medium thickness (400D)

All other baseline variables above constant.

18 (6% loss rate)

Virgin Poly Mailer, Recycled Reusable Mailer

Virgin LDPE. 12x15” = 0.036 lbs

All other baseline variables above constant.

Recycled polyester. 12x15” = 0.234 lbs

Medium thickness (400D)

All other baseline variables above constant.

3 (33% loss rate)

Virgin Paper Mailer, Recycled Reusable Mailer

Virgin Kraft Paper. 12x15” =

End of life: 90% Recycled.

Recycled polyester. 12x15” = 0.234 lbs

Medium thickness (400D)

All other baseline variables above constant.

1.5 (67% loss rate)

50% of Poly Mailers Reused for Another Shipment

Recycled LDPE. 12x15” = 0.036 lbs

All other baseline variables above constant.

Recycled polyester. 12x15” =

All other baseline variables above constant.

11 (9% loss rate)

What Does This All Mean?

Great question! The first important thing to remember is that all of the above analysis is to help ensure your reusable mailers are at least as eco-friendly as the mailers you’re likely replacing.
 
If you’re considering reusable mailers, you likely want more than just “at least as good as!” You are probably trying to find significantly more environmentally sound packaging than your current packaging. Therefore, use the above as baseline thresholds only. For example, if you want to cut the impact of your packaging in half and you currently use 100% recycled poly mailers, you’ll want to work towards ReEnclose Mailers (the thin, 200D version) that go through at least eight cycles (not just the four that is the baseline described above).
 
Another important note is that the above analysis is focused on minimizing greenhouse gas emissions! Many brands are less focused on greenhouse gas emissions and more focused on reducing plastic use or plastic waste. If this describes your brand, you may be more likely to prioritize paper packaging, even though paper creates more emissions than single-use or reusable plastic counterparts.
 
With this in mind, we hope the above analysis helps clarify the following key takeaways:
 
Reusable packaging can be at least as, if not significantly more, sustainable than poly mailers when evaluating sustainability from a greenhouse gas emissions lens.
 
From our analysis to date, it is clear that when it comes to reusable packaging in the “Model 1” category, it almost always makes ecological sense to move to reusable alternatives. However, this is not always a given for Models 2 and 3! How sustainable your reusable packaging is in these scenarios depends on a lot of factors, including:
 
  • How your reusable mailer is constructed - its size, material weight, the amount of recycled content being used, etc.
  • How likely it is that your customers will send your mailers back for reuse, i.e., your send back and loss rates.
  • How willing you as a brand are to continue using your mailers after they have been through many, many cycles and show wear and tear.
  • And, of course, the feature of the single-use mailers you are replacing - recycled content levels, reuse rates, thickness, etc.
Reusable packaging is a significant emissions step forward for brands using paper mailers (or boxes!) today.
 
If you’re using paper as part of a commitment to minimize single-use plastic in your business, reusable mailers can be an excellent alternative. They are - by definition - not single use! And because plastic does has a lower footprint than paper, you only need a small number of cycles to achieve an even level of greenhouse gas emissions than the paper you are replacing.
 
As you build out your reusable packaging strategy, hopefully, the above scenario analysis helps you consider how and why these various factors play an essential role in the eco-impact of your new solutions.

Should my Brand Consider Reusable Packaging for eCommerce Shipments?

There is no clear-cut answer to this question! However, here are the key factors to consider.

Sustainability

The above section describes these considerations in considerable detail, including:
  • Construction of the reusable mailer
  • Building a program and incentive structure that maximizes customers’ likelihood of sending mailers back
  • How “worn” mailers can be before they are no longer reused
Some of these are decisions that brands need to make proactively.
Others are dependent on a brand’s business model (as “Model 1” companies in which customers will ship items back regardless of whether reusable or single-use packaging is used).

Operational Implications

Switching to reusable packaging can have many repercussions for a business’s operations. These implications are unique to each company, based on whether or not they are in the Model 1, Model 2, or Model 3 category. For example, with “Model 3”, brands would not have to do any in-house cleaning of reusable packaging. In addition, they will not have to manage complex analytics to determine when to replenish packaging (a third-party packaging provider will handle this for brands). With “Model 1”, brands are unlikely to make reusable packaging optional for a customer because their customers are already being asked to send back products and packaging. As you read through the operational implications, consider which ones are relevant for you - based on your business and the type of reusable packaging model you anticipate utilizing.
 
Fulfillment Teams will need to select the suitable reusable mailers for each shipment and include a return shipping label in each outbound shipment.
Receiving teams will need to be ready to restock and (depending on whether this is Model 1, Model 2, or Model 3 reusable mailers) potentially clean the mailers for their subsequent use.
 
Warehousing Space may need to increase, as reusable packaging takes up more space than single-use poly mailers.
 
Procurement Teams will have to adjust how they think about managing their packaging levels. For example, instead of replenishing at set thresholds, the team will need to secure a fixed initial amount of reusable mailers. They will then need to track return rates of packaging and how long the period is between packaging leaving their warehouse and coming back in. They will also need to follow usage rates on each mailer and how many are nearing the end of their useful life. This data will help procurement teams determine when to replenish their reusable packaging and measure the sustainability and cost difference of their single-use vs. reusable solutions.
 
Checkout Options may change. Some brands make “reusable packaging” an option that customers can select at check out. The benefits of this approach are that customers are more invested in their packaging experience and are more likely to send their mailers back. However, this approach requires changes to the website and checkout experience. It also means that the fulfillment team needs to know which orders should ship in reusable versus single-use packaging.
 
Customer Communications may increase. Some brands incentivize customers to return packaging through coupon codes. Others capture a mailer deposit returned when the mailer is sent back. Suppose your brand institutes a program like this to maximize your packaging return rates. In that case, there are significant operational implications on how you track returns and communicate with / pay back your customers.
 
Customer Inquiries may increase. Reusable packaging may also mean increased customer inquiries, especially in the short term. Customers may not know how to return packaging or may lose return labels and need replacements. In addition, they may wonder if reusable packaging is safe. If this happens, it may require a slight increase in your customer support capacity.

Cost and Cash Outlay

Whether or not reusable packaging can be cost-effective compared to single-use packaging is primarily driven by an important question. How many times - on average - will the reusable packaging be used before it reaches the end of its useful life? The same question to ask when considering whether or not it is more sustainable than single-use!
 
For example, if your poly mailers currently cost $0.60 per bag and your reusable mailers are likely to cost $9 per bag, you would need your reusable solutions to be used 15 times for your per-shipment packaging cost to be even. This is an excellent simple calculation to understand the essential cost impact of reusable packaging.
 
That said, there are other considerations to keep in mind:
 

The payment model for the reusable packaging.

With Model 1 and Model 2, brands typically buy and own their packaging outright at a per-unit charge. However, brands may finance their packaging in both of these models (instead of paying for the total cost of mailers upfront, they may be a portion of the cost monthly). For example, your reusable packaging may cost $9 per bag, but if your partner finances this packaging at $1 per month for nine months, you’ll find that your upfront cost with reusable may be lower than your upfront cost for single-use packaging. If your packaging costs $0.60 per poly mailer and you buy 10,000 at a time, this is a $6,000 outlay. If you go through about 1,000 shipments per month and your partner will finance your reusable packaging ($9 per mailer) at $1 per month, your initial outlay of cash is only $1,000, and you’ll be charged this amount for nine months. Many businesses will find this approach extremely appealing, even if the total cost of the reusable mailers is the same as or even higher than the single-use poly mailers.

With Model 3, brands typically “rent” mailers per cycle. In this scenario, brands rent per shipment but don’t need to deal with many operational implications (and associated costs), such as cleaning and sorting returned mailers. For example, a partner may charge $2.50 per cycle. The same company described above would incur $2,500 per month for their 1,000 shipments.

The cost of shipping the packaging from customers’ homes to the appropriate distribution center.

This is especially important for For Model 2 and Model 3 scenarios, in particular. The cost of shipping will start at around $3.50 per shipment. Some brands will transfer this cost to their customers as part of their overall shipping rate, while others will absorb it. This return shipping cost represents one of the biggest obstacles to reusable packaging for eCommerce.

Additional cost elements are driven by the operational implications of reusable mailers, including the cost of equipment, supplies, and people needed to clean, sort, store and use the reusable packaging.

While reusable packaging can be more cost-effective than single-use packaging, it is important to wade into these solutions with your eyes wide open. Recognize that the total cost of operations of reusable packaging is - at least at first - likely to be higher than poly mailers. However, the sustainability benefits and (potentially) the positive impact on your customer experience may be well worth the investment.

Your Brand and Product Set

Does reusable packaging make sense for your product set?
 
If your shipments are highly variable (i.e., you sell everything from paper clips to vacuums) or extremely heavy, reusable packaging is probably not a great fit. On the other hand, if you have more consistency in what you ship (i.e., you only sell apparel and accessories) and your shipments are relatively lightweight, that is a great start.
 
Does reusable packaging make sense for your brand?
 
Some brands rely on a bespoke, highly luxurious unboxing experience that is more difficult to create with reusable packaging that - by design - will become scuffed up and worn down. Other brands serve customers who may not notice or appreciate the added cost and effort that went into reusable packaging or customers who may not be able to or willing to send back their packaging. If your brand and your customers are deeply rooted in sustainability and conscious consumption, the chances are that (responsibly executed) reusable packaging will be a significant bonus for your company. If other characteristics are significantly more critical to your brand than sustainability, reusable packaging may not be optimal. If you decide to move forward with reusable packaging, your marketing team must be ready to promote this to your customers and your community! Get credit for the investments you’re making!

Summary: Start with a Pilot!

As with all things related to packaging and sustainability, there is no clear, correct answer to “is reusable packaging the right decision for my brand?” Switching to reusable packaging is a complex decision for companies with wide-sweeping implications for your operations, brand and customer communications, budget, and planet.
 
Because of this, we often recommend that brands pilot reusable packaging instead of going all-in right away. Several companies we are currently working with continue to ship most of their orders in 100% recycled poly mailers and are testing reusable mailers for a small sampling of their shipments. This testing allows them to learn:
 
  • How comfortable they feel with the quality and look of their packaging after many, many cycles
  • How frequently do customers send the packaging back
  • Whether they are experiencing any damage rates
  • How much - if any - effort and resources do they have to put into cleaning mailers between cycles
  • How to adjust their operations to accommodate this new packaging
  • How their customers respond - is this a positive boon to the customer experience, or is there frustration or pushback they need to address
  • And so much more!

Why EcoEnclose is Your Best Partner for Reusable Packaging

Unlike several other reusable mailer providers, EcoEnclose has no incentive to push reusable packaging on you and your brand if it doesn’t make sense. We are committed to you and the planet. If 100% recycled poly mailers make more sense for your business, great! If recycled paper is optimal, excellent! And if reusable packaging is worth considering, we’ll help you navigate the analysis and decision-making points to finalize this.

We have no interest in pushing reusable mailers on brands where it doesn’t make environmental sense. Instead, we will bring our total commitment to sustainability to every aspect of your reusable packaging decision and solution development.

  • We will fully customize your mailers: We’ll help you choose the lightest-weight recycled material possible. We’ll make sure your sizing, features, structural design, and color work beautifully for your needs, brand, and the planet. And we can custom brand your reusable mailers if it makes sense.
  • We will make sure your reusable mailers are made from recycled content and are recycled at the end of their useful life.
  • We will bring you data-driven decision-making. This includes helping you track and analyze your results to help you understand whether your reusable packaging is more or less sustainable and economical than the single-use packaging you are replacing.
  • We will be your operational partner, helping you navigate the considerations and process changes reusable packaging will entail.
  • Allow you to buy your reusable packaging outright, become a pilot partner, or finance or lease packaging - depending on your business model, needs and budget.

Click here to learn more about EcoEnclose’s reusable packaging offering, and click here to set up a consult to learn more.


Additional Resources

Note: All calculations have been developed based on Trayak's EcoImpact-COMPASS for Packaging. Learn more here.