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The Ugly Problem of Pretty Packaging

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What happens after the Instagram unboxing?

Photo: Glossier Facebook

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There’s a certain thrill that comes with an online delivery landing at your doorstep, and that thrill is only amplified when the packaging is pretty. Stickers! Glitter!

Brands like Glossier and Net-a-Porter are heavily invested in beautifying e-commerce, providing shoppers with brightly covered boxes, ribbons, and other cutesy delights that make the purchase feel extra special. Whimsical packaging has even ignited a popular, albeit strange, genre of unboxing on YouTube and Instagram. But at what expense do these extras come? And is any of it even worth it if it ends up in the trash 20 seconds later?

These are concerns Noah has been thinking about since the men’s streetwear brand was started by former Supreme design director Brendon Babenzien two years ago. Yesterday, Babenzien let customers into this internal conversation with a blog post titled “Our Packaging Sucks.” Publicly, Babenzien acknowledged that Noah keeps its packaging minimalist, which has left some customers disappointed. The company opts to ship products in paper mailers instead of plastic, except the envelopes don’t always stay sealed and some customers have received dirty or damaged clothing as a result. Noah is currently vetting suggestions for how to improve its packaging, but it is still on the fence about adding waste.

“We understand there’s value in the ‘unboxing experience.’ It’s easy to see why it’s such a big component of the marketing strategies for most retailers... People eat it up,” Babenzien writes. But ultimately, Babenzien goes on, “The whole thing lasts a maximum of 2-3 minutes. That’s a lot of waste for what is essentially a mini dose of drugs, a transient feeling that what we just bought, or the company we bought it from, is somehow superior.”

Fashion is cited as the second-most polluting industry in the world (after oil) because of its dependence on cotton and its use of polyester. And the industry is only speeding up thanks to both fast fashion in general and e-commerce companies like ASOS and Boohoo that ship millions of packages a day, with shoppers often ordering several sizes because returns have become so easy.

All that waste adds up. Roughly one-third of trash in the US today is made up of packaging waste, and even with ongoing recycling efforts, 36 million tons of packaging waste ends up in landfills, according to The Guardian. The plastic, cardboard, bubblewrap, and knickknacks aren’t just excess because it instantly goes into the trash: Plenty of packaging is often wasteful right from the start. Have you ever ordered a small beauty product online only for it to arrive in a box large enough to house a child?

It’s unrealistic to think fashion will slow down any time soon. But what would happen if all companies thought about, and spoke about, environmental footprint and waste the way Noah is? The pace at which clothing is created, purchased, and disposed of might not be changing, but could being mindful to excess shipping waste make a difference? We won’t really know unless we try. Will other brands be willing to take a swing at it?

Babenzien certainly hopes so, telling Racked the current rate at which brands operate with packaging waste is “completely irresponsible.”

“You could definitely look at what we are doing and say it won’t make a noticeable difference but that type of cynical thought is for dinosaurs,” he says. “It’s easy to become jaded and give up and just basically become an adult. We want to retain the youthful optimism that makes change. We still have a lot to fix in our own company, but over time we will slowly build a better business that cares about the world and people around us. I think it’s something all businesses should think about.”