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Re-thinking packaging in the e-commerce era

Michel Heck, Innovation Manager, Trend Research, DHL Customer Solutions & Innovation

The world is consuming more packaging than ever, driven by complex global supply chains and the exponential growth of e-commerce. In their quest to balance cost, operational efficiency, product protection and user experience, however, today’s packaging solutions are coming up short. And companies can no longer ignore the environmental impact of the huge quantities of packaging waste generated every year.

A new DHL Trend Report reveals how e-commerce is driving a wave of sustainability and efficiency initiatives and analyzes the trends behind the accelerating need to rethink packaging.


A survey conducted by DHL among its customers and partners shows that for nine out of 10 companies, packaging will play an important role in the next three to five years. Fast-tracked deliveries and increasingly popular subscription services result in frequent single-item shipments, contributing to more carbon emissions and packaging waste. 


The expanded variety of e-commerce products has led to new challenges in shipping and packaging. Survey respondents see themselves confronted with maintaining a reasonable spend on packaging, limiting the number of shipments damaged in transit, as well as optimizing the available transport capacity. 

Challenges & opportunities

In addition, companies are increasingly looking for innovative ways to make their packaging more sustainable, with two thirds responding to customer demand for eco-friendlier packaging solutions. The survey reveals that in the near future, companies will also focus on making packaging smarter and re-usable, both identified as top priorities by nearly half of respondents.


The logistics industry will play a key role in reducing the cost, inconvenience and environmental impact of packaging. It must adopt new technologies, materials and processes across the value chain.


Shipments that are not completely filled up are a major cause of product damage and negatively impact cost and sustainability efforts. Therefore, companies are introducing software that expertly calculates the best possible ratio of items, cartons and pallets and then communicates the results directly to pickers. OptiCarton, for example, DHL's innovative package density optimization tool, maximizes carton and pallet space by more efficiently selecting and arranging packages based on size and weight.


Rising demand, an aging workforce, and difficulty recruiting and retaining skilled staff are common themes across the logistics industry. In packaging operations, companies are now addressing these challenges through the introduction of automation, such as automated unloading processes, end-of-line packing and labeling systems and collaborative robots.


In the DHL customer survey, the majority of respondents said that the introduction of sustainable packaging materials is their number one near-future priority. Research into green alternatives to plastic shrink wrap and single-use plastic envelopes, as well as sustainable grocery packaging is ramping up while, at the same time, balancing cost and customer convenience is proving challenging for retailers.


The adoption of reusable materials and closed-loop recycling programs to eliminate waste has increased lately. Some challenges remain, however. Industries considering building an economically viable reusable packaging system need to think about the required size of the packaging material pool, the design of cleaning systems, inspecting and maintaining containers, and the cost, speed and ease of use of reverse logistics processes.


Smart packaging technologies such as smart labels or tags and last-mile product protection measures strengthen the connection between the customer, the supply chain and the package via real-time updates on its condition and location.
The DHL Trend Report demonstrates that the entire purpose of packaging has evolved. Reaching the next step in packaging performance will require close collaboration between supply chain experts, packaging specialists and customers.

About the author

Michel Heck, Innovation Manager, Trend Research, DHL

Michel is a passionate Innovation Manager and creative problem solver. In his role, Michel is shaping the overall innovation agenda at DHL through developing industry trend reports and identifying, piloting and commercializing state-of-the art technology solutions for the logistics industry and its customers. Within the Trend Research team, Michel’s work focuses on future application areas of drone technologies within logistics operations and the introduction of upcoming packaging innovations to the business.

Michel joined Deutsche Post DHL Group in 2017 and has worked for the global innovation team at the Innovation Centers in Germany and Singapore. Michel studied in France and Germany and holds a Master’s degree with a focus on Technology & Innovation Management.