Sustainability focus: RePack

Welcome to our section of the site which focuses on the sustainable side of retail. It’s exciting times for anyone involved in this area as technology and retailers try to keep up with customers’ demand for all things ethical. From palm oil to fur farms, fast fashion to one-use plastic, excess packaging to food waste – this is where the real action is.

If you have ever wanted to scream at the wastage of boxes/plastic/labels/stuffing that is generated by the ever increasing online economy, and indeed any order that is not bought and taken home from a shop, then the Finnish team behind RePack may have heard your shouts.

RePack is a neat little yellow bag that fits through most letterboxes and can be sent back to the originating seller, whether is an individual or company, over and over again for constant reuse. Companies from small start-ups to much larger operators have taken the idea to heart and now send out the bags with their own orders or for their customers to use.

RePack’s founders

The team behind the initiative are a mix of inventive industrial designers (Petri Piirainen and Juha Makela) and sustainability consultants with a background in marketing and project management (Jonne Hellgren). In 2011 they came together to found an eco design agency to bring a more planet friendly angle to industrial design.

One of of their first projects was with the Finnish postal carrier where they saw first hand how much single-use packaging was delivered and instantly thrown away. Designer Juha Makela had the idea of applying the principles of a bottle deposit scheme to e-commerce packaging described by the company as “an epiphany”  moment but one which the other founders initially resisted. However, when he persisted with the idea the others eventually decided that it was “simple but unique” and worth a shot. All are now very proud of their “concrete solution to reduce packaging trash within e-commerce”.

So how does it work exactly? The founders describe the company as a reusable packaging service and loyalty program for e-commerce and it is made up of three main elements a) the actual returnable packaging; b) the global returns channels and c) the data platform.

In terms of the pack it is durable, lightweight and made of totally recyclable material (the bags are actually made in Asia and made of 100% recycled PP from certified companies). Users flatten the bags when empty to save transit space and the company claims that CO2 emissions are reduced by up to 80% when compared with single-use wrapping options.

The end user empties the bag and folds it into a letter-sized shape showing the return address. They can now just pop it into a post box anywhere in the world and it will be returned to the  sender who can check it, clean it, and then distribute it back to the webstore (or bedroom or warehouse or wherever the e-commerce is led from) for reuse.

Clemence Avignon of RePack told Retail Insider it allowed any online retailer to “demonstrate a commitment to sustainability in a highly visible way while rewarding customers who take part”. She also notes that using RePack can increase sales to ethical consumers and improves user experience.

Avignon notes that estimates of the total value of the packaging market could be hundreds of billions of Euros with exponential growth expected in the coming years. “In 2018 alone the e-commerce market consumed almost €40 billion worth of packaging materials and is set to continue this growth to €70 billion by 2023 and the highest growth by volume is expected from flexible plastic and mailers where our RePack solution is an ideal replacement”.

It is also ideally placed for the e-commerce clothing market for which it was originally designed. This part of the market is expected to grow to $780 billion, according to RePack, resulting into over 10 billion deliveries globally and by 2023 the packaging market for fashion is expected to hit a value of $5 billion in Europe and North America making global fashion deliveries RePack’s number one target market.

As the company recognised early on it is the biggest single e-commerce segment featuring a product that doesn’t need much specialised protective packaging and as we all know only too well apparel also has a big sustainability challenge, especially in fast fashion, where any sustainability initiative is strongly encouraged and examined.

However, the Finns don’t just have clothes in their sights. According to Avignon, with its inventive packaging designs and very cost-effective return channels RePack could service 20% of other segments (cosmetics, electronics, accessories etc) in Europe and North America with a total market opportunity of €25 billion. All this gives RePack a total market opportunity of, well an awfully large amount. But there are clearly obstacles to adoption otherwise everyone would already be using the little yellow bags.

The main one is that, for the moment at least, RePack is only available as soft packaging and in one small size. Avignon notes that to combat this the company is “currently working on hard-case packaging” to expand its range.

Secondly, there is no getting round that there is a cost to using RePack that is simply not there if utilising single-use packaging which sadly is very cheap due to the enormous volumes produced. She agrees: “The environmental impact costs of most packaging is unfortunately externalized.” This means that the planet pays.

But thirdly, its sheer novelty (RePack claims to be the only reusable packaging alternative anywhere) means that “there is no such category of packaging in the minds of most e-commerce professionals”.

To be so ahead of your time that no one even knows you exist is obviously a double-edged sword which will take time and peer cross referencing to alleviate although having no direct competitors others than bad old single use materials has to stand RePack in good stead.

Brands who have managed to discover the Finnish design team include 100 European companies such as HURR Collective Ganni, Calida and Addnature but although corporate iterations of the bags are often requested they are not really on offer because as Avignon makes clear “branded and customised packaging is not our main trend as we want the packaging to be re-usable by all stores”. But overall RePack is excited about the future. “We have already worked with big companies such as Zalando or Weekday so we are scaling and we are ready to expand.”