A few weeks ago, we kicked around the question of whether online shopping is better or worse for the environment than the traditional method. Recently Amazon unveiled a new program that demonstrates another of the efficiency advantages available to large retailers:
> The Frustration-Free Package (on the left) is recyclable and comes without excess packaging materials such as hard plastic clamshell casings, plastic bindings, and wire ties. It’s designed to be opened without the use of a box cutter or knife and will protect your product just as well as traditional packaging (on the right). Products with Frustration-Free Packaging can frequently be shipped in their own boxes, without an additional shipping box.
Amazon is working with manufacturers to eliminate those irritating acrylic plastic cases and instead package products in boxes that can take a mailing label directly. The result for Amazon will be lower handling and packaging costs. The result for customers will be a more pleasing product experience. And the result for the environment will be less packaging waste. (Amazon has a demo video of the new packaging at their Gallery of Wrap Rage.)
Innovations like this are made possible by Amazon’s scale, which gives the company leverage with suppliers. While browsing Amazon’s environmental web site, I was reminded of another advantage of scale: less inventory waste. Something like 35% of the books in a traditional bookstore end up remaindered — returned to the manufacturer, or recycled, or just thrown away. Large, centralized retailers can significantly reduce this waste through better inventory management.
A further benefit of online shopping: the increasing conversion of real-world goods to digital goods. I’ve downloaded quite a few books and albums from Amazon. The venerable Christian Science Monitor recently became the first newspaper to convert fully from a print to an online publication. While we’re still a long way off from a true digital economy, it’s possible to at least glimpse the shape of things to come.
**Update:** I share the enthusiasm of a lot of commenters for this new program, but I do want to point out that it’s going to take a long time to roll out. Right now it only applies to about 20 products in Amazon’s (enormous) inventory. Every new product requires a supplier to re-engineer its manufacturing process — no small task. Just want to make sure that no one has their hopes up for this Christmas…