Rethinking unboxing: Brands are getting creative to solve the growing packaging problem

Online brands want to deliver brilliant unboxing experiences, while balancing the amount of waste generated to do so.

Whisky Me sends pouches of whisky out to consumers via subscription, enabling them to sample a broad range. (Photo: Whisky Me)
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Direct-to-consumer brands — many of which don’t have the luxury of showing off their products in physical stores — have long prioritized the unboxing experience.

But the ecommerce boom that has taken place over the past 18 months has prompted them to rethink the role of their packaging. At a time when an unprecedented number of cardboard boxes are arriving at our front doors, how can brands make online shopping less wasteful, while still delivering the kind of experience that turns people into repeat customers?

Between January and October 2020, the U.S. cardboard box and container manufacturing industry generated $67.3 billion in revenues, according to IBIS World. Packaging is a “gigantic market,” says Sandro Kvernmo, the cofounder of Norwegian packaging design agency, Goods. “And we know that humans that purchase stuff and open boxes relate emotionally to those products.”

Aplós uses inserts made from hemp and mycelium to keep its bottles safe in transit. (Photo: Aplós)
Meet the brands rethinking packaging

Brands are now tweaking and experimenting with their packaging in ways that makes original unboxing pioneers like Glossier (with its beautiful, but plastic laden packages) seem outdated.

Fondfolio, which makes personalized memory books, gift wraps each of its products in vintage scarves which can be reused or regifted. Body wash brand Plus has done away with bottles, and instead uses a wood pulp packaging that can be left in the shower to dissolve, while personal care brands including Ace of Air and Fig.1 in the skincare space, and Wild and Myro in the deodorant arena, have come up with ways to help customers refill their original packaging once they run out of product. Toothpaste brand Better & Better says its toothpaste — which, rather than coming in a classic tube, is packed in pouches — uses 45% less material than traditional toothpaste packaging, and can reduce landfill waste by 84%.

Emily Onkey, the cofounder of alcohol-free spirit brand Aplós says the team spent “nine months of our lives that we’ll never get back” figuring out how to ship its products out to customers safely without having to resort to stuffing the boxes with plastic.

In the end, it settled on a packaging material made from mycelium (a type of fungal root structure) and hemp, that mimics the function of styrofoam. The inserts are made by growing the mycelium around a mold, which takes around four days. After that, it spends up to 24 hours drying out before it is ready to use.

It is, unsurprisingly, not the cheapest way to do things: Onkey says each insert costs around $2 to produce. The inserts are not particularly stackable, either, meaning Aplós has to pay for the extra warehouse space they use.

Onkey says it is all worth it though, to deliver a better packaging experience for customers. The mycelium inserts can be broken apart and will disappear within six weeks when tossed into a garden. The team is considering adding wildflower seeds to a future iteration, to ramp up the eco benefits.

“When you have something arrive that feels wasteful, it doesn’t feel good [or] luxurious, it feels irresponsible,” she says. “In some ways, I think it’s really healthy that you have to look at the packaging and the waste that comes with your consumerism. [Now] people are much more considered about where that packaging is coming from, where it ends up and how long it’s going to be sitting on earth.”

Kankan packages its soap in aluminum cans, and uses compostable cardboard Flexi Hex packaging to ship the products to consumers. (Photo: Kankan)
The pathway to better packaging

Kvernmo says the path to better packaging requires brands to forensically dissect the entire journey a box or other item of packaging goes on to figure out where and how it can be improved.

This process is called “sequencing,” and the list of questions asked covers everything from how a box looks from the outside, the inside and how it protects the items contained within to how it can influence a consumer’s behavior — by containing literature on a loyalty program, for instance, or printing instructions on how to recycle or reuse the box, to make sure customers don't just put it in the trash.

Agencies like Goods and Gander (which Aplós works with), that specialize in packaging design, can walk founders through this process, while packaging marketplaces like Lumi and Packlane connect brands with packaging suppliers. For brands looking for sustainable packaging solutions in particular, there are databases like Slash Packaging (set up by Lumi) and the Goods Index (by Goods).

In trying to figure out how to package sea salt without resorting to plastic, spring salt brand Only's founder Steven Petrillo says the brand examined how people actually buy and use salt at home. “When you think about how salt is bought and sold — you can go in the grocery store and buy huge pound jars — we wanted to do the opposite of that,” he says, adding that experienced home chefs will typically use “pinch bowls” that are easy to dip into while cooking.

Only uses 1.5oz single-use sachets — enough salt to fill up a pinch bowl (which the brand also sells), but not so much that it’s impossible to use up before it gets clumpy (salt absorbs moisture from the air). The sachets themselves are home compostable, Petrillo adds.

Slow progress

Delivering a better packaging experience isn’t as simple as answering a set of questions and placing an order with a packaging supplier, however.

The options that exist on the market for brands to choose from may not always be perfect, whether that’s because the sizing isn’t quite right, the cost is too high, or the sustainability credentials aren’t quite where consumers would like them to be. Some packaging solutions — like the mycelium inserts that Aplós uses — may not be so easy to scale up.

Bathroom brand Kankan sells its soaps in aluminum cans, with refillable “forever” bottles. It’s a good solution — aluminum is known for its high recyclability — but it’s not quite perfect. Because aluminum cans come in standardized sizes, Kankan finds that customers often have a little bit of soap leftover in the can, which won’t fit in the forever bottle. The plan, cofounder Mary McLeod says, is to keep iterating on the packaging and hopefully get to a place where the cans themselves can replace the forever bottles.

Whisky Me, meanwhile, found itself under the watchful eye of the Scotch Whisky Association when it first started promoting its whisky sampling subscription in 2017 — the organization is keen on protecting the reputation of one of Scotland’s most important exports. In order to make sure it was complying with the rules, Whisky Me teamed up with an approved Scottish distiller to hand-pour whisky into the 5cl pouches it sends out to its subscribers.

The brand’s willingness to jump through these hoops — and put in the time to convince the whisky distillers themselves, who were initially skeptical about how their premium product might be perceived when packaged in a squeezy pouch — has paid off.

While this packaging format was chosen to help Whisky Me achieve a price point of around £7 ($9.70) per whisky sample (the pouches are cheap, light and near enough indestructible — reducing waste and making them cheap to mail), cofounder Thomas Aske says “we didn't realize the PR value of it at the time.”

“When the press cottoned on to the fact we were putting single malt scotch whisky, a category that’s held in high regard, into pouches, it gathered interest all over.”

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