One of the major complaints customers have against online retailers is the kind of packaging they use.
I remove the cello tape and open the first of the two paper bags. Inside there are multiple other bags, slightly smaller. Slowly, carefully, I open the first one. Out pop half a dozen lemons. I follow the same process with the next, and the next, tindas in one, baingan in another.
Honestly, the growing heap of neat white and brown paper bags that stand accusingly in the corner of the kitchen, look far more inviting than what's emerged from them.
For some reason I am reminded of those Russian dolls-within-dolls when all I did was order some groceries online. Paper bags in pristine white or woody brown is what I get in return.
In vast numbers, one for each item, no matter how small or humble. Six green chillies. Bagged. A bunch of coriander leaves. Ditto. All the while a eucalyptus is being slaughtered somewhere.
Turning to social media I find I am not alone. One of the major complaints customers have against online retailers is the kind of packaging they use.
The beautiful brown paper bags and the cardboard boxes may be aesthetically pleasing but to the concerned buyer it is a criminal overuse of precious paper which requires trees to be chopped down. Most of these cardboard boxes, bubble wraps and plastic mailers aren’t recycled and go to our already burgeoning landfills.
Given the size of the industry, why don’t big online companies, such as Amazon and Walmart which ship 15-20 million packages a day, spend some of their R&D dollars on introducing innovative packaging solutions that are environmentally safe?
Most still follow the old in-store models of wrapping things in plastic or paper. The irony is that most large physical stores now insist on shopping bags. What’s more, a whole host of small retailers are already showing the way with their use of cloth and jute bags. Startups across the world have shown how to make sustainable packaging materials that are easily compostable and biodegradable.
The big online retailers have been accused of packing items in plastic envelopes in an effort to load more parcels onto each delivery truck. The problem is also in the very structure of online marketplaces, since the different online retailers who prepare these orders may not pay much attention to the need for sustainable packaging.
Even when I consolidate an order for fruits and vegetables with one vendor, I find they pack each item in a separate paper bag. Two dozen items then means an equal number of paper bags.
To be fair, some of these companies have made the right noises. On September 19, 2019, for instance, Amazon announced a commitment to be ‘net zero carbon by 2040 and run on 100% renewable energy by 2030’.
In the last 10-12 years it has announced sustainable packaging initiatives including ‘Frustration-Free Packaging’ programs to cut thousands of tons of packaging materials and over a billion boxes by promoting easy-to-open, recyclable packaging and shipping products in their own packages without additional shipping boxes.’
Similarly, Walmart has a Recycle Together programme, one instance of which is a How2Recycle label on every private label product.
Sadly, on ground in India there’s little evidence of these initiatives working. Despite being an Amazon Prime regular, I haven’t seen the Frustration-Free Packaging option anywhere. Instead of returnable and reusable packaging, companies use paper bags or even worse single use plastic.
Perhaps the fault lies with us as customers since we have started judging even natural products by the kind of wrapping it comes in. Nature gives us wonderful examples of efficient and sustainable packaging.
Think of an orange or a banana or a litchi, each of which comes with its own cover such that you eat the fruit and throw away the peel. Yet we insist on dressing them with unnecessary thermocol held together with ugly tape.
As retail grows ever bigger in India, sustainability not just in terms of product choices but in terms of practices is going to become a key differentiator for sellers particularly with younger customers clearly opting for environmentally-sensitive vendors.
For an Amazon or a Walmart or even a JioMart, the solutions may lie closer home. In Berlin, Arekapak, a startup, has created a sustainable packaging design from the areca palm leaf. In India we have a wonderful tradition of wrapping food material in banana or dried sal leaves. Elsewhere, experiments with bamboo as packaging material have looked promising.
I for one, would be quite happy if next time my order of bananas comes wrapped in banana leaves.Sundeep Khanna is a senior journalist. Views are personal.