Box of Chocolates Triggers ‘V-Waste Guilt’

By Dave Armon, 3BL Media CMO
Feb 17, 2017 11:25 AM ET
Blog

As someone who spends quite a bit of time with sustainability professionals, I try to minimize my own environmental footprint. 

So it was a bummer earlier this week when my efforts to be a good husband and green-minded consumer generated unwanted V-waste. 

My Valentine’s Day shopping routine was disrupted because the New York City jewelry and chocolate stores where I routinely bought gifts had both recently closed, presumably the victims of steep midtown Manhattan rent hikes.

Rather than undocking a Citibike and pedaling a mile or two to buy a pound of delicious Leonidas Belgian chocolates on Madison Avenue, I was forced to procure Valentine’s goodies through the chocolatier’s website.  In the process, I lost out on a miniature cardio workout and added a cardboard outer box, wrapping paper and two pieces of molded polystyrene packaging to the waste stream. 

With that V-waste guilt fresh in my mind the morning after Valentine’s Day, Amazon’s sustainability chief took the stage at the annual GreenBiz Forum in Phoenix to proudly display some of the e-tailing giant’s accomplishments.

Kara Hurst, a former CEO of The Sustainability Consortium whose Amazon title is director, Worldwide Sustainability & Social Responsibility, said her two years of work to reduce packaging waste was starting to pay dividends at Amazon, which logged a staggering $44 billion in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2016 alone. 

While sales are diversified and include enterprise web hosting and movie, music and e-book rentals, the growth of Amazon’s e-commerce business is having a profound impact on bricks-and-mortar retailers as well as the environment.  To cope with the demand, Amazon is opening dozens of regional fulfillment center and is even assembling its own fleet of “Prime Air” Boeing cargo jets to gain more control of delivery logistics.

At GreenBiz, Hurst acknowledged having “massive sustainability impacts” as Amazon saw a 25 percent gain in e-commerce versus the traditional retail sector’s modest 6 percent gain. She pointed to “frustration-free packaging” that encourages manufacturers to eliminate clamshells and shrink-wrap packaging that consumers find too frustrating to open (see “wrap rage” video).  Printing on cardboard boxes has also been discouraged, allowing for easier recycling and reuse.  Items like diapers and paper towels are being dispatched au natural, with a shipping label slapped on the manufacturer’s original packaging rather than atop an exterior carton.

Demonstrating the impact even a new initiative can have inside a company as large as Amazon, Hurst’s status report revealed:

  • 1.1 million products have been certified as “frustration-free packaging” or “shipped in own container.”
  • 165 million cardboard “overboxes” have been conserved
  • More than 1 million trees were saved, 546,000 in 2016 alone

In the New York City apartment building where my family lives, a steady stream of couriers from UPS, FedEx, the U.S. Postal Service, FreshDirect and Amazon Prime now outnumber deliveries from local pizzerias and delis. 

An overwhelming number of boxes are crushed for recycling. But Amazon has distinguished itself as environmentally aware with its new AmazonFresh food delivery service, which uses bright green reusable insulated bags.

My daughter Libby, a freshman mechanical engineering student, has long groused about Amazon packaging waste.  Her contention is that durable cartons -- constructed from recycled materials – could replace cardboard overboxes and get backhauled to Amazon for reuse.  Based on Hurst’s progress update at GreenBiz, I am convinced Amazon is keenly aware of my V-waste guilt and that my daughter and her friends are environmentally judgmental consumers.