Let’s take a look at the packaging process of a garment before it arrives in our wardrobe. Many garments are packed multiple times before reaching the customer. This means that there are many variations of single-use packaging.
Each year, more than 80 billion garments worldwide are manufactured. Many of these garments are often shipped multiple times. It is clear that most packaging ends in the landfills or incineration.
A journey through multi-packaging
The factory’s packaging contains the manufacturer’s packaging. Finished garments are usually tagged and packed according the style, colour, and size. However, this is not done per store or end-user. In most cases, factories will send their collections to a brand’s warehouse. There they can be sorted by retailers in case of wholesale or stored for DTC brands.
Warehousing, one of the most complex logistics processes in fashion, is also one of its most important. These garments can be folded, hung or placed on pallets or docks for fulfillment. Garments are packed to be ready for seasonal changes and manage returns. Additional services include labelling, re-labelling and ironing garments before shipping. These services will require garments to either be repackaged for sending to the end user, or to be assembled as an order to a retailer.
Larger retailers tend to have their own warehouses. Think of online giants such as Zalando or Net-a-Porter, or department store groups. Multiple store channels require that orders be broken down by store, and sometimes these orders are shipped to multiple locations. The retailer will then repackage the garments to ship to their brick-and-mortar outlets.
Packaging waste was estimated to have generated 174.1kg per EU resident in 2018, but this does not include the previous iterations of packaged goods that were produced before reaching the customer. Consumers expect brands to deliver their products more responsibly. However, there is not enough transparency in the supply chain to show how much waste was produced before it reaches the customer. This would require a complete overhaul of the manufacturing and shipping systems, including the implementation of efficient alternatives to delivery from the source and the elimination single-use disposable packaging. The focus should be on recycling and circular, and environmentally friendly alternatives.
One company that is trying to address the problem is The Sustainable Packaging Coalition. We have developed tools and services that can be used to assist companies in taking meaningful actions towards packaging sustainability, even for large quantities of garments.
Covid wasn’t helpful
Online sales were boosted by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. This led to a significant rise in single-use plastic bags, boxes and containers. This positively impacted the use of plastic packaging in ecommerce. Online sales are driven by fashion. Most factories use virgin plastic to package clothes. The problem is exacerbated by single-use hangers, which account for 85 percent of the total amount that ends up in landfill.
Where do you start?
Sustainable packaging is a complex problem. There is no industry standard or one-size-fits all solution. There are many options that can be lower-impact, such as switching to paper or natural materials. These do not take into consideration issues like rain, damp, and moisture during shipping and storage. You can also use recycled shipping boxes. However, paper is heavier than plastic so this would increase shipping costs.
Virgin plastic is not acceptable
Manufacturers, warehouses, and brands should make a commitment not to use single-use plastics or virgin packaging. This is the best place to begin. Many global organizations, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Fashion For Good and the Better Packaging Company, are available to offer advice and provide sustainable solutions for companies.
Although switching to natural materials is not without its challenges, there are many innovators out there who have created options at different stages of the supply chain. All three parties, consumers, brands, and factories will reduce their waste volume by looking at how we produce and consume.