The rise of the humble brown box


The internet has changed the way we shop forever: books, beers, electronics, toys, makeup or furniture – thanks to smartphones and e-commerce, you can buy virtually anything you want, from anywhere in the world, and have it delivered to your doorstep.

In the excitement of the packages arriving at our homes from Amazon, Alibaba or eBay, we give little thought to one of the most significant but humble enablers of internet commerce: the brown box that so many of these things arrive in.

So important is this unsung hero to the development of the fourth industrial revolution that the global brown-box-making industry is predicted to be worth $204 billion by 2023, up from $169 billion in 2017. This is driven largely by the growth in global e-commerce – particularly in the developing world. For example, India’s e-commerce industry is projected to rise from $38.5 billion in 2017 to $200 billion by 2026.

Humble beginnings

The packaging is nearly always referred to as ‘cardboard,’ although the correct term is ‘corrugated cardboard.’ And it has a long history.

The origins of cardboard itself date back to China about 3,000-4,000 years ago. But the term was first coined in Anne Brontë’s 1848 novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Corrugated paper was patented a short time later in London in 1856. It was developed as a liner that would help top hats retain their shape. Robert Gair invented the pre-cut paperboard box in Brooklyn in 1879. So popular were his products that he made millions of boxes for cookies, tea, tobacco, toothpaste and cosmetics manufacturers.

Humble as they may look, corrugated boxes are a remarkable feat of engineering.

The corrugated folds in the board help reinforce the boxes. The air trapped between the layers provides a stable cushion for their contents, protecting items during shipping. Boxes also keep moisture away from their contents, which is especially important for items like food and rare books.

Boxing clever

It takes two machines to produce the boxes: the corrugator, which creates corrugated cardboard sheets from paper, and the converter, which turns it into a box.

These machines have evolved over many years. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Group (MHI) has been making corrugated box-making machines since 1956 and has been at the forefront of these innovations.

For example, MHI developed the first computer-controlled systems for box-making machines in the 1980s and now manufactures one of the fastest box-making machines in the world, working at a speed of 400 boxes a minute. The largest box it can produce holds 380 liters, and the machine can fill nearly seven two-ton trucks in a 60-second run.

As well as being strong, light and easy to produce, corrugated boxes have strong environmental credentials. They are 97% recyclable and can be produced from recycled materials. About 29 million tons of corrugated cardboard is generated annually in the US, and more than 89% of this was recycled in 2014, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

This is more important than ever in an age of growing concern over plastic packaging. Much of this plastic ends up in landfill or the world’s oceans. Boxes tend to be easier to recycle than plastics and are also biodegradable.

One major advantage of cardboard boxes is their biodegradability.
One major advantage of cardboard boxes is their biodegradability.

Added messaging

Beyond its environmental credentials, the ‘humble brown box’ also makes an excellent sales and marketing tool.

It can be printed on so companies can easily get their branding and messages in front of consumers.

Modern box making machinery is very agile, which means the size and shape of boxes can be changed at high speed and for different quantities. Coupled with the ability to make boxes of any hue using colored dye, this offers the potential for greater personalization of consumer orders.Goods can arrive in boxes that have plain exteriors and colorful interiors, or even be emblazoned with the customers’ names – a boon especially for those buying expensive, high-quality goods such as jewelry or phones.

By further developing the potential of these technologies, box makers are able to help their retail clients win the attention of ever-more distracted consumers, thereby setting themselves apart within their own fast-growing market.

In the meantime, remember to think of the internet-era’s unsung hero the next time a package lands on your doorstep – and recycle it when you’re done.


Adam Jezard

Adam Jezard is a journalist and former commissioning editor of the Financial Times.

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