At Columbia Sportswear, Reused Packaging Has Story to Tell


columbia_boxThe packaging industry is really charging forward with all sorts of innovative, recyclable materials these days, but one of the best and easiest ways to make packaging sustainable is to simply reuse it.  That’s what Columbia Sportswear is doing as part of its recently-launched ecommerce program.

Six weeks ago, the Portland, Ore.-based outdoor clothing company started taking online orders for the first time. When consumers are completing their online transaction at, they can select to have their order shipped in a reused box. Once they receive the reused box, they’re also able to log onto the website and find out where that particular box has been before arriving at their home. So far, the response to the program is strong, with 66 percent of shoppers electing reused packaging.

The boxes that are reused come from products shipped between distribution centers, or returns from retail stores back to Columbia’s facility, explains  Columbia spokesperson Leslie Constans. Products for online customers who elect not to receive a reused box are shipped in a plastic bag made of 25 percent recycle content. And inside the bag are instructions for creative ways that they can reuse the bag.

The reusable box program is part of a larger push by the company to reduce its environmental impact, but it also resonates with many Columbia customers.

Thus far, more than 270 of those customers have elected to receive product in a reused bag and those boxes have traveled nearly 171,000 miles.

To track the history of the reused box customers go to and key in a serial number printed on the reused box. Or, if they have a web-enabled smart phone with a camera, they can scan the QR code (a 2-dimensional bar code) on the box and log onto the website to learn about the box’s journey—based on where else the QR code was scanned within Columbia’s supply chain.

Customers are also encouraged to share the box’s journey Twitter or other social media websites. Some have been uploading photos to the site, showing how they are elected to continue to use the box at home. (Most of these photos, not surprisingly, show children use the boxes for fort-making…)

Columbia isn’t the first company to encourage reuse of boxes or other packaging. The outdoor clothing company Icebreaker ships some of its products in cardboard boxes that can be turned into keepsakes such as jewelry boxes. When shipping new orders, office supply company Give Something Back picks up the empty cardboard boxes in which it delivered older orders to its customers in Sacramento and most cities in the Bay Area, and then reuses the boxes for other customer orders.  And Terracycle has recently sprouted a plan to collect empty Scotch tape dispensers and return them to 3M, to be refilled. ” This is as close to Cradle to Cradle design as we’ve seen, but without the need to radically redesign the product packaging,” writes Tom Szaky.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to

4 responses

  1. Pingback: Columbia Sportswear Finds 66% of Online Shoppers Prefer Pre-used Boxes « CleanOregon
  2. Why make reuse optional? Other companies reuse boxes as standard practice. Asking consumers to choose adds a step in the order process and people may overlook it. Tracking the box is cute but why add that time and resource use, adding cost to the reuse option?

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