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Amazon’s long journey to get rid of its signature brown boxes

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Amazon parcels are prepared for delivery at Amazon’s Robotic Fulfillment Centre on December 19, 2023 in Sutton Coldfield, England. 

Nathan Stirk | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Every year, the U.S. goes through enough cardboard boxes for shipping to pave a one-mile-wide road from New York City to Los Angeles three times, or build a mile-high cardboard wall around the entire continental U.S.

Among the primary targets to help reduce this mountain of packaging, the most notable may be the Amazon shipping box or envelope. In 2022, 11% of Amazon orders worldwide were sent in original manufacturer packaging. The company has yet to release its 2023 figure for the initiative designed to get rid of Amazon’s signature brown box, called the Ships in Product Packaging program.

It identifies products that might work, contacts vendors and then, to ensure that packages won’t be damaged during delivery, Amazon works with those companies to test products in a lab. Packages need to be able to survive drops off a conveyor belt, vibrations and shaking on the truck or the delivery person accidentally dropping the package while walking to the door.

“We qualify products ahead of time to make sure that they are going to deliver to customers without damage. Then we simulate the ecommerce fulfillment process as part of that testing process so as products are enrolled in the program, we make sure they meet that minimum standard to arrive safely,” said Kayla Fenton, Amazon senior manager of packaging innovation.

Testing varies depending on what the product is. Liquid items are more tricky than a stuffed animal. “Our tests are designed to react to the particular product type and its inherent fragility,” Fenton said. The test results are then fed into machine learning models which go through the Amazon catalog for more items that can be added to the program. For example, if a vendor sells a red tee-shirt, chances are the blue tee-shirt will perform just as well, Fenton said.

Products get tested five times, and each time something breaks, it helps the machine learning models evaluate what went wrong and how to fix it. Feedback from customers also gets fed into the system. If customers complain about damage and return more items because of it, Amazon can go back to using boxes.

Go North Group, a Fulfilled by Amazon aggregator that sells a wide range of home and garden goods, health, sports and pet products, was among those asked to join Amazon’s ships in packaging program. Johan Stellansson, Go North’s supply chain director, said the testing revealed that 80% of the company’s products can be shipped without additional packaging, including its MalsiPree portable water bottle for dogs.

In some cases, an extra piece of tape was enough to add some extra stability to the box so it could go through the shipping process undamaged, including some of the company’s pet stain and odor remover products, which come in bottles that are then packed in boxes. Bigger products that require a lot…

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