Yesterday I received a package from Amazon Prime. It had two small items inside: a Gorilla Pod , and a pair of eco-friendly water filters for Soma Water Carafe. There was nothing unique about these items—they were puny in size and yet they arrived in a giant box bursting with air-filled packaging material. And I looked at that box with absolute and complete disgust, wondering, Is Amazon Prime actually an EcoCrime? Others on Twitter agreed with that take, which only reaffirmed my guilt for using Prime—for being an unwitting enabler of waste.
It took this startling wasteful box to make me finally wonder about the economic and ecological impact of Amazon Prime. And how it will be magnified in years to come. According to research firm Jefferies, “Amazon Prime, the company’s $99-a-year membership program, offers free two-day shipping on over 20MM eligible items with no minimum order size; for all other items, standard or no-rush shipping is also free.” Music and video streaming is thrown in for free as a sweetener. During 2014, Amazon Prime worldwide paid membership rose 53 percent, and increased by more than 50 percent in the United States.
In another recent report, Jeffries estimated “that eCommerce in the US as a % of total retail sales is hovering around 7 percent and is expected to be $347.3 billion in 2015” and by 2018 it will be “9% of sales at $491.5 billion.” Amazon, Jeffries estimates, currently has roughly 20 percent market share. Ben Schachter of Macquarie Securities recently estimated that at the end of the first quarter of 2015, 20-to-25 percent of U.S. households were Prime members. He expects by 2020 this number will be around 50 percent of U.S. households. So what happens, environmentally-speaking, when half of America has Prime? What is the implication of millions of us ordering small items in quantities of one or two?
Amazon’s oversized box shamed me for not paying attention to the fact that Prime had made me a serial shopper, never for one minute considering about the consequences of those orders—and the ecological damage being done. However great the convenience, they come with heavy costs. I’ve been a Prime subscriber from the moment it launched, but for the first time I’m seriously questioning my brand loyalty.
I don’t know the “actual” costs associated with the shipping of the box. It is reasonable to assume that the size of box must have an impact on space occupied in the delivery vehicle, and thus must create higher fuel costs. I wonder how much cardboard is wasted when using wrong boxes? By the way, I am not the first person to notice the boxing-buffoonery. This is well chronicled in media. It is an often-mentioned complaint on Amazon’s own forums, in fact. So, what is the problem? The only reasonable theory I can arrive at is Amazon’s deal with the U.S. Postal Service. In 2015, FedEx and UPS adopted new rules to calculate shipping costs — factoring not just by weight, but also by dimensional weight and volume. This makes them too expensive. It explains why Amazon is getting cozier with the USPS, which is desperate to shore up its declining revenues. They pick up Amazon’s packages from its “sortation” centers, which are lower tech, cost less and are much deeper in the cities. The lower delivery costs come because of that deal.
What other explanation could there be? I mean, the company spent more than $774 million buying Kiva Systems, renaming it Amazon Robotics, all in pursuit of efficiencies. According to Jeffries’ estimates, Kiva does not “require batching and waving of orders” and as a result “any online order can be processed in as little as 15 minutes (from the time a shopper places the order to when it’s picked, packed and labeled package is sitting on a delivery truck).” In non-Kiva fulfillment centers, the process takes about two hours.
The company is rumored to spend about $7 billion on shipping every year, and it makes sense for them to be squeezing out every penny. So why can’t they get the boxes right? It just feels odd to me: after decades of following the company, I can safely assume that Amazon is obsessed with speed of delivery and with costs, both to them and to the customer. And I don’t for one minute believe that the company is not secretly working on new and more efficient packaging designs. If you see how they pack and ship books—mostly a book wrapped with a thin cardboard package only marginally bigger than the book — you know that they have the ability to do things correctly.
This problem of overly large boxes for small items is an interesting window into Amazon psychology. Does Amazon consider it a small price to pay for speed-to-delivery? Perhaps eco-sensitivity is a sensible sacrifice in their eyes. But then again, as recently as last year the company promised to use more renewable energy sources in its Amazon Web Services (long after its rivals had made such moves). Just as the need for cheap power is forcing countries to continue their use of ecologically damaging coal-based power plants, I believe Amazon is simply doing whatever it can to ship cheap, ship fast.
I don’t mean to pick on Amazon—their box was simply a handy physical manifestation of something that’s been rankling me. It dropped me down a rabbit hole, where I began to mull the environmental impacts of Munchery, Uber, Lyft, Sprig, and countless other conveniences. If more on-demand vehicles are on the road, is that good for the urban environment, traffic, and overall health of the cities they serve? I mean, thousands of Ubers crisscrossing San Francisco 24 hours a day isn’t actually alleviating our traffic situation. Why does Uber need to send a Chevy Suburban when a smaller luxury car would be more economical? I suppose for now these questions aren’t that important in a world that is optimized around speed and efficiency.
The whole episode left me wondering about individual accountability—how the small actions that we take on a daily basis should or could make an impact. Personal decisions, right or wrong, around how we live, consume, and create can and should have an impact. And shouldn’t we be asking those who make money from us the questions that allow us to make smarter decisions? I am not what you would classify as a “green/eco person.” I am also not a climate change denier—Hurricane Sandy or the California drought are good enough for me to know that Mother Nature is angry. I attempt to be very rational about my own carbon footprint.
I walk because it is healthy. I don’t own a car and I don’t desire to own one. If the California government says there is a drought, I personally impose restrictions on my water usage—like a three minute shower. I don’t eat meat that has consequences on my health (and also on the planet). I typically don’t use air conditioning, opening windows when it is too warm (rarely in San Francisco) and when it is too cold inside the apartment, I wear a sweater or a nice robe.
I limit the number of lights that are turned on in the apartment, often using individual function lighting such as bedside light or one above my dinner table. Thanks to a connected power strip, I can turn off most of my gadgets when I leave home on extended travels. I have started buying fewer clothes, and buy just enough food that I can consume it, rather than throw it away. So, flying and Ubers were my eco-excesses. And also, apparently, Amazon Prime.
It is pretty clear that we are going to a world of “instant fullfillment” of goods or services. The omnipresent mobile machine has put everything at a fingertip and it is slowly programing us for wanting more things, faster. Packages and packaging are going to be key part of this new reality. And what that means is rethinking the idea of package design.
Liam Casey, who is the founder of PCH International, which does manufacturing in China for many brands, knows a lot about these things. During a recent visit to his incubator space in San Francisco, he pointed out that as things are being shipped more often (instead of us going to various stores), the product companies and large retailers like Amazon have to step back and rethink their whole process. And thus there needs to be awareness around the concept of “design for freight” aka shipping. The ideal design for freight product would be an optimal balance between weight and volume. It is an alien concept right now—just as design thinking was what “Apple did” years ago. In a fulfillment-oriented internet-based economy, it will also be the concept that will help make the difference when it comes to profits and losses.
Packaging is a part of a bigger challenge for companies. If not today, then sometime in the near future, it will be vital to know where a product is made, where the components comes from, and what its final ecological footprint is— all so we can make informed decisions around these products. Casey showed me a prototype system that his company has built that basically gives you the exact breakdown of how a product was made: components, time taken, and miles travelled by the product. It was granular and yet it had an “easy to understand” design, and if it becomes available it could become the equivalent of an ingredients chart on the back of packaged foods—except simpler. Liam pointed out that the supply chain is so highly automated and computer-enabled that it is fairly easy, as long as there is a desire to reveal this information.
But information needs context for non-experts to understand what it all means. When I found out I was diabetic, I started noticing food labels, and spent time Googling and figuring out what foods and ingredients mean. I started to read the fine print. Well, fear of dying can make you work hard at figuring things out. The story of the products, however, can’t be complex, and has to be easy to understand. When Apple came under criticism for its environmental disregard, the company took quick action and started making positive changes. They now reveal a lot of data, which, like most humans, I don’t truly understand—except that they say they are doing all the right things.
And this, finally, brings me back to where I started— the Amazon box. I wish it wasn’t that big. I know it is a little thing, figuratively, but it’s a big deal. An increasingly big deal to me. So, from now on, I won’t be ordering things willy-nilly, and when I do make a purchase I’ll take pains to group orders together. And in the coming weeks I will be keeping a closer eye on the sizes of the boxes landing at my door, and also on how many boxes the company chooses to use to ship its items. Call it mindful shopping.