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Packaging the Future: REI “Unpackages” Five of Their Popular Products
Posted By Starre Vartan On December 21, 2011 @ 4:28 pm In Green Materials,green packaging,packaging-the-future | No Comments
“Before” example of a kids Novara bike: Smarter, lightweight packaging means most of the waste above is eliminated.
According to Eric Abraham, REI’ s packaging engineering manager, the future is all about “unpackaging” products. The company’s ambitious goal is to reduce packing materials 35% by 2013, and some of those gains are going to be made simply by eliminating packaging altogether. “No packaging, simply product,” explains Abraham. And it all started with the customers, he says. When the company started offering in-store recycling of the big boxes that boots were shipped in, consumers leapt at the idea, and soon every store had piles of boot boxes to recycle. Very few people wanted to take the box home – they just wanted the boot. What followed over the next years was a radical rethinking of many of the current packaging designs – sometimes reducing waste, sometimes reducing weight, and almost always simplifying. Jump ahead to find more examples of what Abraham and his team at REI have done to make unpackaging a reality for the retailer.
Before: a vacuum packaged product using polylaminate adhered to recycled paper backing card.
After: 100% Post-Consumer Recycled Content, clay-coated newsback (CCNB).
Packaging Reduction: 36% reduction in overall package weight, and optimized resources using only a paper based substrate void of plastic from previous design.
Before: Bikes were 80% built in China, then shipped, and the last 20% was built in the US. Each bike was individually wrapped in plastic, secured with plastic ties and layers of cardboard, polystyrene and other materials, and shipped in its own box. What should have weighed 25-30 pounds could come in at over three times that with the packaging. In addition, it used to take 2 minutes to unpack each bike when it arrived in the US.
After: Bikes were interwoven and put in a four pack (adults) and two-pack (kids) box. Packaging was reduced by 68%. Padding and protective layers were rethought and reduced so that now a four-pack can be unpacked in 30 seconds, which was a huge cut in labor expenses.
Packaging Reduction: “Our adult bike biz growth trajectory is 30% – but while that’s grown, we’ve reduced packaging by 30% at the same time. We’re selling more bikes, but using less packaging today,” says Abraham.
Eric Abraham describes the redesign process: “Back in 2009, while competing an adventure race my teammates and I struggled with packing bike tubes in our packs and bike seat bags. There wasn’t a method to ‘protect’ the tube and our to keep it compact and coiled. The traditional utilitarian use of a folding carton was great to sell the product. Beyond that? The carton is just prefabricated the trash given to the rider.
The aspects that made bike tubes a candidate for change was when we looked at the product to packaging ratio (i.e. folding carton weight compared to the actual tube weight). The question we asked was not to lightweight the carton, but how could be extend the life of the packaging beyond point of sale? Could the packaging serve a purpose for the rider?
Being an avid mountain biker, I tested several deigns and ended up taking on a substrate that I used back in my days of working in the food industry. Shrink-wrap is used for all sorts of labeling with beverages at convenience stores. A compostable shrink-wrap would allow us to protect the tube until the rider needed it to fix a flat. It also light weighted the consumer packaging by 98%.
One challenge was how to sell shrink-wrapped tubes at retail. The existing folding carton does provide a very functional way to merchandise at retail. We looked to several nutrition food brands that use retail carton displays. Bike tubes are roughly the size of energy bars and so we engineered a retail display carton to help give our tube2go product shelf impact. The new shrink-wrap solution provides a perception at retail that our packaging is listening to the rider’s needs. To have a bike tube at the ready, to fix a flat. We’re including a QR code with our new graphics as well to give new riders that chance to link to expert advice if they need a video for help. For most? The appeal of our packaging is solving a problem for the rider, that’s doing way more with less. Less packaging and function.
Several of our top-selling Novara Brand bike tubes in the redesigned bike tube packaging will hit retail shelves in spring 2012. We are introducing 700 series road bikes tubes and by fall we hope to have engineered the new format for mountain bike tubes and in both presta and schrader valves.”
Before: The consumer packaging (box) used was polylaminated, and the product factory poly bagged each and every lid, pot, or accessory.
After: “The packaging innovation lead to using a preferred packaging supplier that could trace the board used with our box. We also incorporated a unique die cut box to have better shelf impact. This allowed the consumer to see the product not just the photo,” says Abraham.
Packaging Reduction: Design was light weighted by 15%, many fewer pieces used, and plastic reduced.
Before: Hangtags made from some recycled materials, attached to clothes with virgin plastic ties.
After: “We rethought changing hangtag format, increased recycled content to 100% FSC certified, 100% recycled content. We worked with Avery-Dennison, and they came up with a resin extracted from polypro hangers to make bar tacks. We’re now using recycled content which uses less energy and less impact from virgin materials.”
Packaging Reduction: 130,000 pounds of paperboard saved. Future plans may include doing away with hangtags all together.
It is this kind of attention to detail and thoughtfulness that is what waste reduction (and possibly elimination – the company has a goal of zero-landfill contribution by 2020) is all about. And best of all, REI is sharing its innovative solutions with other outdoor retailers and companies in its space. The “hidden element of sustainability is sharing best practices,” says Abraham. “How can we do less bad and do more good?” If Northface, Merrill, Patagonia and others can ask vendors the same questions, then “…our factories understand we are moving together and working together,” says Abraham. If packaging is a product, and vice versa, then this is the next generation of great products.
Read more on the REI blog here .
Starre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life  (St. Martin’s Press). A green living expert, she contributes to The Huffington Post  and Mother Nature Network (MNN.com )
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