or Learnings from trying to ship some chairs...
When I first got the job to find sustainable packaging for ecochair’s chairs, I thought easy-peasy - been there, done that, got the T-shirt. I started with my contacts at hand, as I have done similar work for Unilever and Samsung and started asking questions. And then I thought again, maybe not quite so easy...
For a company that is really working at the top of the waste management hierarchy, waste prevention… wait hang on... this is Boxology 101 so let’s take a step back: let me explain the waste hierarchy first, shall I?
The waste hierarchy promotes waste elimination and reduction, before recycling and disposal options are considered, as show in the picture below.
Since re-use is the second-best option, the first call I made was to the company in the UK, Sadlers – a company we had used for my past clients. They take boxes that have been used once and find other companies who could use those same boxes, and sell them cheaper than the new market price. The seller gets a rebate, the buyer gets cheaper packaging, thus creating a nice business model. Unfortunately, it is crystal clear that this model relies on matching the right size boxes for both companies. As you can imagine, finding the right size box for the 'average' chair is not that easy, and this option had to be eliminated due to the lack of suitably sized boxes.
Could we even describe the 'average' chair and the 'right' size box? I pride myself being an engineer and can visualise things, but in the end, it came down to playing Tetris with some chairs in a real-life situation. We had a helluva time with that task. As happened, ecochair had to ship two chairs, and I had just received a new BBQ grill for my home at the same time...... Do not underestimate two crazy sustainability professionals with a BBQ grill box, two chairs, big scissors and tape in hand... We learned a lot in the process, most importantly found the 'right' size for two chairs. And the result was a good shipping experience. We also had a similarly good experience with dog food delivery boxes for a single chair. There seems to be a continuing supply of those, thanks to my two doggies. Woo hoo, re-use at its best. And, unlike Sadlers, we had the required sized boxes available!
Now, we also had a visual clarification of size and experience in real packaging. Which led us to the next option - recycled boxes, more accurately boxes made of recycled cardboard. And we spent days and days talking with suppliers....... Well, actually me talking and suppliers gently declining to offer. And that is our second learning - size matters, and we are not talking about box size either, but order and company size. The mantra was 'call us again when you are ready to order hundreds or thousands of boxes'. Well, in the future hopefully.
But that did not leave us with a workable solution - there is a limit to how many dog food or BBQ grill boxes we could get, and we needed a scalable model. The third learning for us is: never say never. We all love to hate Amazon, me in particular with their unsustainable packaging method of using at least three different layers of packaging, and typically significantly oversized boxes! I keep complaining to them but...... this might be another nice blog for the future. However, we found that Amazon and its marketplace does have is an affordable supply of the 'right' sized boxes.
So, it seems for the foreseeable future when we run out of BBQ grill boxes, we have a potential supply of sustainable packaging boxes at sustainable prices (which is also part of the sustainable business model!) – albeit not from a ‘thought leader’ in sustainable packaging. Who would have thought?
Interestingly, while I was chasing after packaging suppliers, we also learned that you can actually ship completely unpackaged items with Swiss Post as ‘bulky goods’. This is right at the top of the waste hierarchy, though we need to make sure the items are protected. We’ve also been testing options with this, much to the amusement of the local postman.
Anyway, I’m now on to hunting down sustainable packing tape, and eco-friendly cushion filler. Future update: Boxology 102.