A triple-win: Amazon’s “frustration-free” packaging

A few weeks ago, we kicked around the question of whether online shopping is better or worse for the environment than the traditional method. Recently Amazon unveiled a new program that demonstrates another of the efficiency advantages available to large retailers:

> The Frustration-Free Package (on the left) is recyclable and comes without excess packaging materials such as hard plastic clamshell casings, plastic bindings, and wire ties. It’s designed to be opened without the use of a box cutter or knife and will protect your product just as well as traditional packaging (on the right). Products with Frustration-Free Packaging can frequently be shipped in their own boxes, without an additional shipping box.

Amazon is working with manufacturers to eliminate those irritating acrylic plastic cases and instead package products in boxes that can take a mailing label directly. The result for Amazon will be lower handling and packaging costs. The result for customers will be a more pleasing product experience. And the result for the environment will be less packaging waste. (Amazon has a demo video of the new packaging at their Gallery of Wrap Rage.)

Innovations like this are made possible by Amazon’s scale, which gives the company leverage with suppliers. While browsing Amazon’s environmental web site, I was reminded of another advantage of scale: less inventory waste. Something like 35% of the books in a traditional bookstore end up remaindered — returned to the manufacturer, or recycled, or just thrown away. Large, centralized retailers can significantly reduce this waste through better inventory management.

A further benefit of online shopping: the increasing conversion of real-world goods to digital goods. I’ve downloaded quite a few books and albums from Amazon. The venerable Christian Science Monitor recently became the first newspaper to convert fully from a print to an online publication. While we’re still a long way off from a true digital economy, it’s possible to at least glimpse the shape of things to come.

**Update:** I share the enthusiasm of a lot of commenters for this new program, but I do want to point out that it’s going to take a long time to roll out. Right now it only applies to about 20 products in Amazon’s (enormous) inventory. Every new product requires a supplier to re-engineer its manufacturing process — no small task. Just want to make sure that no one has their hopes up for this Christmas…

Author Bio

adam

Comments Disabled

  1. Liz - November 12, 2008

    Now, if they would only purchase (or allow us to add on) carbon offsets for the shipping!

  2. jtlove - November 12, 2008

    I feel that this is something we all need to push hard for. The manufacturers won’t do anything unless we demand it.

  3. Ross - November 12, 2008

    Great find, Adam, and way to go Amazon!!! Coming from the environmental field, I generally hear about such commercial endeavors, and they are usually half-hearted publicity grabs. Not this one, folks. Amazon is using its market muscles to really make a significant impact on packaging. This is a positive change that I hope so many find appealing from the reduced stress and increased green that it will catch on across the global market place! For those of you that have children: Post-unwrapping Christmas may conclude in minutes, rather than the days it usually takes at my house!

  4. Lois - November 12, 2008

    My favorite is a gift with NO packaging and no material – my current favorite is downloading books, music, movies and video from the internet…you get all the benefits of seeing, and hearing without any packaging at all…we need more solutions like this – the zero waste gift.

  5. Lonna Richmond - November 12, 2008

    well, that is great news. a couple of years ago i bought something at amazon and was shocked at the amt. of packing for a paperback book. it was absurd. i wrote them an email and then proceeded to never use them again. so, this is wonderful to see them doing the right thing. bravo. let’s hope lots of other online stores do the same.

  6. Jan Johnson - November 12, 2008

    While this is certainly good news about the packaging, let’s not forget that energy is used in having something shipped to us. If instead we can walk or cycle to a bookstore (I consider bookstores an irreplaceable pleasure)and buy an off-the-shelf book (which they then won’t have to remainder)isn’t it preferable? And a giant retailer won’t be putting an independent one out of business. I’m a bit surprised at Terrapass promoting on-line buying, well- packaged or otherwise.

  7. Kim - November 12, 2008

    Yay!!! We’ve been waiting for someone to do this. Packaging has become so wasteful and difficult to deal with, especially for toys. This means I can enjoy my Christmas morning instead of fiddling with non-recyclable plastic coated wire.
    Now we need to get the brick and mortar stores to follow suit.

  8. Doug Thomas - November 12, 2008

    This is a differentiator for me. I would definitely purchase products through Amazon rather than through other sites simply based upon this. I have, over the past 18 months or so, waged a (half-hearted) campaign of emailing gratitude to vendors that have minimal packaging & have chastised two or three vendors for exorbitant packaging.

  9. Kim - November 12, 2008

    Yay!!! We’ve been waiting for someone to do this. Packaging has become so wasteful and difficult to deal with, especially for toys. This means I can enjoy my Christmas morning instead of fiddling with non-recyclable plastic-coated wire.
    Now we need to get the brick and mortar stores to follow suit.

  10. Alisha - November 12, 2008

    In Utopia we’ll all be able to walk/cycle to our local, independently owned book stores. We’re far from that realization so Amazon should be applauded for its efforts. Sometimes you just have to be realistic and do your best with the circumstances. Better to do something, and I agree that this something is considerable, than to wait for the whole country to change its living habits.

  11. Jill W - November 12, 2008

    I am the happiest parent in America right now. I HATE the horribly cumbersome packaging that toys come in. In past years I’ve done a lot of my holiday shopping at Amazon, and I suspect I’ll do ALL of it there this year because of this. Again, Amazon innovates and leads the industry. Love them!

  12. Edge - November 12, 2008

    Great to see, but when will TerraPass work with Amazon to provide Carbon offsets to Amazon purchasers for the carbon impacts of the shipping? Provided the cost was reasonable, I’d kick in an extra buck or so for carbon offsets when I buy on Amazon and I’m sure others would too!

  13. Jen - November 12, 2008

    Well, that neighborhood bookstore still has to receive the book, which means shipping, freight, packaging, etc. Nothing is free, no way is purely clean. I agree with you — I prefer my neighborhood independent bookstore — but that isn’t always the answer. And if a company like Amazon can muscle manufacturers to use less packaging — well, I have a hard time arguing against it.

  14. Katie - November 12, 2008

    Well done! This new “stress-free” packaging may add years to my life and will be a pleasure to recycle! Thanks.

  15. Ross - November 12, 2008

    Well Said, Bravo!!!

  16. jeremy - November 12, 2008

    Bravo to all who write letters, and make their enviro concerns known. On that end i’d like to second (or third) the idea that if terrapass (or if they don’t, some other carbon offsetter more quick on the uptake) could work out a deal with amazon to offer shipping offsets so that we can offset our shipping guilt (and the unverifiable amount of carbon associated with the shipping).

  17. libertyfromgovt-corp - November 12, 2008

    not true…manufacturers will look for efficiencies as the economy gets worse…look for additional changes like this over the next 4 years…however, there is no reason not to forward this article to other companies and ask them to stop wasting money on packaging…and requiring me to have a screwdriver to free a toy from the box it comes in…

  18. Adam Stein - November 12, 2008

    I think this is a great program too, but I should warn people that only a very small handful of products qualifies for the program right now. This shouldn’t be a surprise — it’s undoubtedly very time-consuming to re-engineer your suppliers’ manufacturing processes — but I don’t want to disappoint anyone who is expecting to see a fast roll-out.

  19. Artug - November 12, 2008

    I stopped buying anything from Amazon after I found out that they were selling dog and cock fighting magazines. It is not an ethical business. I’m pretty sure that at the time their reply to humane organizations were that they had the right to sell anything and everything that would bring them profit. I guess they think this will bring them profit right now. I also agree that the best way to be green is to end unnecessary consumption.

  20. Edge - November 12, 2008

    Screwdriver? You must be already getting environmentally friendly packaging! I usually need razor-sharp knives, a vise, and small amounts of explosives to get some of the packaging I buy open.
    Our next effort should be with Costco. I love Costco. Pay their employees well. Provide them healthcare. But have awful, huge amounts of packaging.

  21. Sara - November 17, 2008

    Before patting Amazon on the back, are they changing their packaging for books as well? As one commenter already noted, their book packaging is obscene. Your books arrive shrinkwrapped in plastic, floating around in a box that is much larger than it needs to be (especially when a padded envelope could have been used). I’ll continue to try not to use Amazon until I know they have discontinued this practice.

  22. Samantha - November 18, 2008

    This is a good start in the right direction. I shop at reusablebags.com and gaiam.com, and both sites consistently package their products appropriately with astoundingly minimal waste. It would be a treat if all shopping, both on-line and retail could consider these minimalist packaging ideas.

  23. David - November 20, 2008

    Agreed this this is a worthy effort and a fine example of a powerful business driving change up the supply chain.
    BUT I can’t help but agree with others who have pointed out Amazon’s appallingly wasteful packaging on items like books. Reducing the plastic and advertisements and sticker paper (and sometimes even whole catalogs) that accompany the item you ordered is a change they could make RIGHT NOW that would have a profound impact on waste reduction and doesn’t require the huge task of collaborating with every supplier.

  24. David - November 20, 2008

    Just sent an email to Amazon with this very comment.

  25. nineroots - February 27, 2009

    I have my own struggles with toy box packaging, which I am very vocal about. See what I mean at:
    http://tinyurl.com/al9gco