Sustainable packaging is getting a lot of attention due to the proliferation of internet shopping. Have you ever been shocked when you received a delivery like the one in the picture below?
Yes, the packaging takes up more space than the actual item – which is the box on the top right of the picture. I was outraged. Having said that, I do realize there is a delicate balance to protecting the items during transport and minimizing the use of packaging material.
As the sustainable packing advisor for ecochair.ch, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that balance for the online sales of our furniture. Is there a right way to do it? What is the most environmentally friendly way to package a chair or table? There is no easy answer I am afraid. We’ve been experimenting and learning about ‘eco’ options including boxes, fill & void materials, packing tape and labels but have yet to come up with a simple option.
In a bid to learn from others, I recently sat down with Reha Okay, the owner and managing director of Okay Art . He operates a storage hall with a stunning collection of vintage and antique design furniture, tucked away in the side streets of St Johan, in Basel. It’s a mid-century-modern heaven, and I’m not the only one who thinks that – they have customers from all over the world, who buy the items through websites like 1stdibs.com as well as directly over the Okay Art website. In their case, one size definitely does not fit all, as the Okay Art collection ranges from small lamps, to dining tables to three-seater sofas. So, how do they do it?
Reha and his team take sustainability seriously: not just in their business model but also in packaging and transport. Since I’ve had such trouble sourcing boxes that are the right size, I asked him about where he gets theirs from. I was really surprised at his answer: believe it or not, they hunt around their neighbourhood on recycling day and collect any usable boxes and packaging material. They also use recycled wood and re-used medium-density fibreboard (MDF) as their furniture can be quite heavy, so reinforcement is needed to ensure safe transport. This is a serious commitment, one which has been very successful as they have not ordered packaging material in years, relying only on re-used materials. Back at their storage space, they neatly organize their pickings for the next order. As a matter of fact, they were apologetic during my visit about not organizing it better. Well, it looked perfect to me, but I guess they have not seen my daughter’s bedroom for comparison…
After the beautiful vintage item is all packed up in a box, we reach the most controversial part of the packaging process. As Okay Art ships overseas, the most sustainable (and the least costly) transport is by sea cargo. And therein lies the challenge, as condensation in cargo containers on sea is a big issue. So, in addition ensuring that the packaging could survive 10-20-meter waves, it also needs protection from moisture, which means plastic. From an eco-point of view, plastics have an impact both because they use oil to make them, and also because they stay in the environment for hundreds of years and disrupt the natural ecosystems.
Okay Art deals with this the best way they can for now - shrink-wrapping the packages. Reha told me that they do not like it but having researched high and low they have not yet found a suitable alternative – yet. As somebody who has done extensive research on plastics wraps, I can understand that. This is not a new challenge, just ask me about stories in my old job shipping electronics for Samsung! Again, the problem here is balancing the need and fit for purpose. Most environmentally friendly plastics films are biodegradable, and they do not have the strength required for protection of packages. Furthermore, to be biodegradable they need moisture and warm conditions – exactly provided in the belly of a cargo ship cruising to America. Have you ever forgotten to take out your green waste biodegradable bag on time? Big mess on the kitchen floor as the bag disintegrates. Furniture and moisture don’t mix well, so in the end if the furniture arrives damaged and unusable that isn’t good for the environment either. However, I’m optimistic that in the near future we’ll have a plastic-like product that can do the job and be eco-friendly; I’ve promised to keep them up to date if I hear of any new developments.
Reha and I also discussed the challenge of perception when using recycled packaging for shipping high end furniture. In general, their packaging looks pretty professional (not like the ‘franken-boxes’ we’ve created at the ecochair.ch packing station), however he is conscious that at their price point, customers might expect to have nice and new packaging. To counter this, they put a ‘recycled packing’ sticker on every package, to help their customers understand that the choice of packaging is an environmentally-conscious one. So far so good and no complaints about the packaging have been received.
You’ve probably realized by this point that every item is individually packed, and the package is specifically ‘designed’ for the piece and the destination. This is also an experience we’ve had at ecochair.ch, so while I’m disappointed that there isn’t a simple one-size-fits-all solution, I am encouraged that I am not alone in my struggle. Making custom packaging is not for the faint-hearted, and while Okay Art have now developed a good packing routine, it’s hard won through experience and lessons learnt.
I myself learned a lot in our discussion and am grateful to Reha and his team for taking the time to show me their packaging set up. They seem to have got the right balance between protecting the items during transport and using eco-friendly packaging. I'm inspired!
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