Well, Flipkart is currently pilot testing ‘no package shipping’ and ‘e-commerce ready packaging’ for certain categories. The brand’s sustainability head Mahesh Pratap Singh talks about how it is dealing with customer privacy issues and more….
What if the curtains you ordered from Flipkart are delivered to your doorstep in a single-layered transparent packaging? What if, instead of a curtain, it was a personal use product?
The first thought would be of the guy who delivered your order. Will he be acting all calm and judging you on the inside because he has seen what you have ordered? And what if the order is received by your building’s security guard, your maid, your office helper or anyone other than you?
When it happened with one of us at afaqs! (received curtains in a single-layer packaging), the initial thought was that the secondary layer of packaging may have been damaged during the shipping process. How is it otherwise possible that the product was not wrapped in a brown (e-commerce delivery) paper bag or a hard cardboard box, with at least two layers of bubble wrap cushioning and extra paper shreds for support?
When the order was closely looked at, one could see the e-commerce brand’s logo, meaning it was shipped like that only.
It didn’t take us long to find out that Flipkart is currently pilot testing ‘no package shipping’ (or package-less shipping) and ‘e-commerce ready packaging’ for certain categories. The philosophy behind it, Mahesh Pratap Singh, head sustainability, Flipkart, tells afaqs! over a call, is to eliminate the use of single-use plastic.
“The packaging at Flipkart has been a pretty holistic conversation as we are looking at every aspect of reducing, recycling and reusing (‘3 Rs’) any waste material, including packaging,” he says.
Singh joined Flipkart in 2016 in investor relations, following a 13-year-long career in global investor relations, fundraising, strategic finance and various business operating roles across the tech and telecom sectors. His current mandate focuses on transforming Flipkart’s operations to become more environmentally friendly, and promote responsible consumption across the ecosystem.
He claims that the brand does not use any bubble wrap or airbags for orders and, instead, reuses carton waste (eco-friendly paper shreds). The brand has also replaced poly pouches with recycled paper bags. “As a company, we do not add any amount of plastic to the planet," he tells us.
In the pilot testing phase, Singh explains, the brand is looking at categories where products come in a box of their own. “For example, a helmet or sports shoes automatically come in a box. For products like these, we are speaking to brand partners, wherever necessary, that no extra layer of packaging will be used while delivering the product. We will only put a Flipkart sticker on top of it and send it out,” he shares.
As of now, the brand does not a have a fixed list of categories where secondary packaging can be eliminated, but it is in the process of identifying them. A lot of it depends on the customer’s feedback, Singh says. “We take their (customers) inputs on what’s been their experience – was there any breakage, spillage or damage at the time of delivery. And it is only then that we seal a category,” he mentions.
Singh adds that the possibilities of reducing packaging when you look at a category are massive. In a category like lifestyle, he elaborates, reducing the packaging for every SKU (stock-keeping unit) may not be possible. “There will be a little more privacy concern there. Our teams are looking at such categories one at a time," he points out.
The pilot testing is being held at a local level, with top metro cities leading the way, but the brand plans to nationalise it soon. Flipkart started phasing out plastic packaging from its own supply chain in Maharashtra and switched to paper-based packaging, starting May 1, 2020.
The concern, Singh states, really is from where a product is being shipped. A lot of early traction for the project is coming from products ‘Fulfilled by Flipkart’.
The e-commerce platforms has two categories of shipments – one which is fulfilled by the brand (Flipkart is in custody of the item/inventory), and two, the products that are directly shipped by the sellers. The packaging experiments are, as for now, being tested for orders being directly shipped by Flipkart and will eventually be tested with seller-shipped products as well.
The brand is also working with policymakers, state governments and other stakeholders to understand how it can enable a feasible transition for its seller partners from plastic packaging to sustainable alternatives that are affordable, scalable and easily available.
Common sense tells us that the drawbacks of single-layer packaging include theft, privacy loss and product damage during shipment. How’s the brand dealing with all this?
Singh opines that there’ll always be some issues that one has to deal with. “It’s not like they did not exist earlier, or for multi-layered packaged products. Behavioural issues from the mindset point of view, and vulnerable weak points from a design standpoint, will always be there. There isn’t anything to specify that will be dramatically different here. However, we are going to rely on customer’s feedback for it” he says.
Singh points out that for the categories where there is negative feedback, the brand may not continue with the reduced packaging efforts. But for the products where minimum packaging is acceptable and the company receives positive feedback, it will seal those categories and scale up the initiative.
Flipkart’s other environmental sustainability efforts include the introduction of electric vehicles (EVs) in the last-mile delivery network; resource efficiency and use of renewables; waste reduction and management; and ISO 14001 certification for its strategic facilities. This is a crucial benchmark for gauging preparedness to prevent environmental pollution in the workplace.
The company announced its commitment to transition to electric vehicles by joining EV100. It is a global initiative, led by The Climate Group, to bring together forward looking companies committed to accelerating the transition to EVs and making electric transport the new normal by 2030.
While the brand does not have any communication plans for its sustainability efforts, it plans on using its own media channels – blogs and Flipkart Stories to run educational campaigns.
Recently, e-commerce delivery partner Amazon also globally announced its work to reinvent and simplify its sustainable packaging options using a science-based approach. It combines lab testing, machine learning, materials science and manufacturing partnerships to scale sustainable change across the packaging supply chain.
Nikita Bhargav, a former Amazon marketer and co-founder of NittyGritti (a tech solution to content problems), gives a thumbs up to Flipkart’s initiative to reduce the use of single-use plastic for orders.
“But I still think it is time we say ‘totally sustainable’ and not just that we reduced the packaging by 50 per cent. While I may not have given it a lot of thought, I’d be really in favour of a brand that has gone totally sustainable,” she says.
Bhargav is of the opinion that at the end of the day, even that last layer of packaging needs to go away, and one needs to find something more sustainable.
“If you are really worried about the privacy, what would bother me, as a customer, would be a personal use product like lingerie being delivered in a transparent plastic. It will go in a building with security guards and others looking at it, or if it’s a really high value product, like a jewellery piece, and it’s visible. Apart from that, I wouldn’t really be bothered by somebody else looking at what I have ordered,” she says.