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Unpacking fashion’s packaging problem

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Fashion is notorious for its reliance on packaging. As brands and retailers search for more sustainable alternatives, Drapers looks into potential changes and how rethinking packaging can have a tangible impact.

The war on plastic pollution was one of the earliest sustainability issues to really take hold of consumer consciousness, as high-profile media coverage such as Sir David Attenborough’s 2017 BBC Blue Planet II documentary fuelled awareness of the damage it can do to the environment.

With its reliance on plastic and paper throughout the supply chain – from polybags in factories to plastic packaging for online orders and plastic carrier bags in stores to paper return labels – fashion has work to do in order to clean up its act.

Sustainability organisation Ellen MacArthur Foundation says plastic packaging is estimated to make up 26% of the total volume of plastics created a year, and 72% of this is thrown away. 

Fashion relies on plastic and paper throughout the supply chain – from polybags in factories to plastic packaging for online orders and plastic carrier bags in stores to paper return labels. The industry has work to do to clean up its act.

However, some retailers and brands have started taking note, and innovative solutions and meaningful projects are making an impact, reducing waste and CO2 emissions while simultaneously meeting the demands of increasingly conscious consumers.


Supply Compass

As part of Weird Fish’s sustainability strategy, the brand announced in November that it would be introducing eco grass paper bags into its 17 stores in the UK, replacing plastic bags. Grass paper is made from wood pulp and a minimum of 30% grass fibres.

John Stockton, managing director of Weird Fish, notes that the production of the bags emits 75% less CO2 than standard paper bags and the switch will significantly reduce the company’s carbon footprint. The cost difference between grass paper and plastic bags is negligible, he says, and the introduction of was relatively straightforward.

“We implemented a running change to ensure that existing stocks of packaging were phased out as they were used,” he explains. “We didn’t want to needlessly dispose of any packaging already in stock. As a smaller company with the agility to implement change relatively quickly, we were able to transition efficiently as we moved from the spring 19 collection to autumn 19.”

Cornish lifestyle brand Finisterre’s approach has been to introduce a new kind of plastic packaging. Working with polymer manufacturing company Aquapak, it has developed a 100% water-soluble, compostable and biodegradable plastic bag.

Customers have told us they want us to help them reduce their impact on the planet and that reducing and recycling packaging is key for them

Stephen Cawley, head of sustainability at John Lewis

Niamh O’Laoighre, product development manager at Finisterre, explains that the brand collaborated with Aquapak over 18 months to develop the eco-friendly polymer, which can be used to create “plastic-like” bags to be used in ecommerce deliveries. Eventually, O’Laoighre says, the idea is to make the technology open source so that other businesses can also utilise the polymer – helping to reduce the amount of non-compostable plastic materials sent to landfill or finding its way into the oceans each year.

Currently, the bags are around two to three times more expensive to produce than conventional plastic ones, but O’Laoighre stresses that as production, supply and demand increase, this will drop.

“We know fashion is a massive contributor to the issues around sustainability, and we’re trying to find a way that we can counteract that as best as we can,” she says. “We take our commitment really seriously as a business, and we’re doing what we can to ensure we have the least impact possible. We know that plastic is a huge issue in that conversation.”

Weird fish

Weird Fish

Other examples of eco-friendly, biodegradable packaging are popping up across the market. For example, sustainable sourcing platform SupplyCompass launched a range of biodegradable garment bags for retailers, made from a corn-based biopolymer.

“Polybags are lightweight, effective and cheap,” says Flora Davidson, co-founder of SupplyCompass, “but, unfortunately, their most common iteration is 100% plastic [which is] difficult to recycle.”

Big names are also taking action. John Lewis and Zalando are just two retailers to have recently announced plans to rethink packaging in a bid to enhance their sustainable credentials.

In October 2019, John Lewis launched a trial at its Oxford store encouraging shoppers to adopt a “reduce, re-use and return” approach to packaging. Initiatives include removing all plastic bags from the store and encouraging shoppers to bring their own bags, saving an estimated 5 tonnes of plastic a year, as well as introducing re-usable click-and-collect bags made from 100% recycled materials.

“Our customers have told us they want us to help them reduce their impact on the planet and that reducing and recycling packaging is key for them,” says Stephen Cawley, head of sustainability at John Lewis. “We will listen to customer feedback on this blueprint before deciding what we should introduce to other shops.”

In its sustainability strategy announced in October 2019, German ecommerce giant Zalando pledged to be single-use plastic free by 2023 and focus on designing packaging with circularity and waste reduction in mind.

We consider packaging as one of the most strategic topics in the ecommerce landscape

Uwe Streiber, team lead warehouse consumables at Zalando

The retailer already uses 100% recycled boxes, with shipping bags made from 80% recycled material and polybags made from 60% recycled materials.

Uwe Streiber, team lead warehouse consumables at Zalando, says that the benefits of solving the packaging problem are multifaceted. “We consider packaging as one of the most strategic topics in the ecommerce landscape. There is a strong brand-building potential, as packaging is one of our main touchpoints to customers with the unboxing experience. We see a high innovation potential with regards to new materials and logistics processes.

“Our leverage is also high: we can influence the type of material used and adjust processes to reduce consumption. The potential environmental impact is also great: by tapping into this topic we are impacting two issues: CO2 and waste.”

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John Lewis

Cutting down on the paper involved in packaging and labelling can also have an impact, says Patrick Eve, managing director of returns management solution ZigZag Global.

“Thousands of retailers print millions of returns labels each year and the majority of them never get used, costing retailers millions of pounds in printing and wasting tonnes of paper in the process. Small changes like removing these labels and packing slips from their outward parcels and digitising the process, can make a big difference to the environment.”

ZigZag now offers a paperless returns solution for retailers via Hermes, Royal Mail and CollectPlus and others in the UK. It directs customers online where they can generate a returns label without requiring a printer.

“ZigZag has helped a number of major UK retailers save over 2 million paper labels from being included needlessly in outward parcels since switching to our paperless solution, with the retailers estimating that they have reduced their paper wastage by around 60%,” says Eve.

As consumers continue to demand change, with innovation taking place across the spectrum of fashion retail, packaging is thankfully moving towards of a plastic-free revolution. With heavyweights like John Lewis and Zalando on board, change across the industry should become cheaper and more easily accessible for all as the ripples of their influence filter across the industry, helping retailers dramatically reduce their waste output and CO2 emissions. Now is the time rethink your plastic use.

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