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Free shipping is quietly changing the design of your favorite products

The rise of e-commerce has not only rewritten the rules of shipping and delivery; it has also changed how packaging and products themselves are designed.

Free shipping is quietly changing the design of your favorite products
[Illustration: Yodai Yasunaga/courtesy of Smart Design]

On any given day, my Brooklyn apartment building’s lobby could be mistaken for a UPS warehouse. Packages pile up, as they’re delivered throughout the day by a variety of logistics companies. Each company has its own trucks, which drive down my street, park, deliver packages, and move on to the next building. Online shopping today is fast, convenient, and inexpensive. In New York City alone, there are more than 1.5 million packages delivered every day.

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The rise of e-commerce has not only rewritten the rules of shipping and delivery; it has also changed how packaging and products themselves are designed. Once upon a time, products were designed to stand out from the competition on shelves. Now, they’re being optimized for shipping, whether they’re shrunk down to fit into smaller, cheaper packaging or they forgo packaging altogether.

But there are still many things that need to be done to solve the challenges of shipping directly to consumers. This is partly a matter of economics. Shipping goods directly to consumers is more expensive than shipping in bulk to stores, and businesses obviously want to keep costs down. But it’s also a matter of environmental stewardship. The environmental impact of e-commerce is difficult to quantify, but we know that delivery vehicles pollute cities, and much of the packaging used to deliver goods is not reusable (even if it is recyclable), which can overload waste streams.

These are thorny problems that companies are starting to tackle through design. Here are two ways designers are already responding to the new demands of e-commerce and how they might innovate moving forward.

Innovation underway: tiny products, just add water

Shipping economics have incentivized decreasing the volume and weight of the goods manufacturers ship. The smaller and lighter the package, the cheaper its shipping and, theoretically, the smaller its carbon footprint. In their conventional form, many household products are mostly composed of water—something that comes out of faucets in every household. Encouraging consumers to add that water at home drastically decreases the shipping volume and weight of many household products. Some examples of this innovative approach on the mass market today are Drinkfinity, a Pepsi brand that sells flavored water pods; Blueland, which sells cleaning supplies in tablet form; and various Unilever products. It’s a great start from these consumer-packaged-goods brands, and other industries will likely follow.

Innovation underway: packaging-less packaging

Not every product can be recycled using widely available recycling methods. Companies are stepping up by shipping used products or packaging back to the supplier to have them take care of it, such as Nespresso cups or even Legos. Although this is a promising solution, it also means we’re increasing the number of packages we ship out.

Some companies are trying to do away with single-use packaging altogether. The Loop system, from Terracyle, removes the need for single-use plastic or cardboard containers that end up in the trash through a refill model for grocery staples such as orange juice, granola, and dishwasher tablets. Customers receive their groceries in reusable containers and return them when they’re done; the containers are then washed and reused. These containers are often nicer and longer lasting than what we see in stores—most are made from glass or metal—resulting in very little waste material.

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Innovation to look out for: a single package to rule them all

Recently I had a pair of headphones delivered. The packaging was clearly designed for store shelves and the box was put in another cardboard box that was quite a bit bigger. I understand why: This bigger box can take a beating, it doesn’t reveal what’s inside, and it houses a plethora of shipping labels. But it’s also incredibly wasteful and way too common. Many boxes are packed in other, standard-sized shipping boxes, often because Amazon has specific demands for its highly automated logistics system. Sure, cardboard boxes are recyclable. But the U.S. recycling infrastructure can’t cope with that kind of volume, and tightened regulations from its recycling-outsourcing partner China means less can be exported. What if we challenge packaging designers to create a single solution so only one box made of one material gets shipped?

What’s next

Products and their packaging have been adapted for home delivery by the consumer-packaged-goods industries because they managed to design their way around the problem of weight and volume, driven by the incentive of spending less money on shipping. Other industries have not adapted yet, but they’ll have to if they want to sustainably exist in a market where home delivery is becoming inevitable. Designers will play a crucial role in determining that future. Which is to say: In 10 years, many of the products you use today may be completely unrecognizable. But you’ll have no problem getting them shipped to your front door.

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