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IMRG Online Retailer Interview: Internet Fusion Group

A Q&A with Adam Hall, Head of Sustainability, Internet Fusion Group

We spoke to Adam about eliminating plastic, supporting charities, and putting recycling at the forefront of the packaging strategy

In your own words, tell me about Internet Fusion

Essentially, we’re a group of specialist online retailers that provide technical gear for passionate participants in activities that get them outdoors. As we cater for an outbound customer, naturally our customer-base has that want to look after those special places that mean a lot to them. We’re a part of that culture; we’re the same people as our customers. We want to look after those places as much as they do, so sustainability is front and centre of who we are and what we’re about.

What are your biggest challenges in 2019?

You can break it up into two major categories: the physical operations of the business and improving our customer experience online. Last year we made a big move: we moved to our own dedicated, highly-sustainable warehouse, and through doing so, we took some huge chunks out of the impact we have on the environment. This year, it’s all about fine-tuning. That’s our biggest challenge: to fine-tune the big moves we made last year into making operations really slick. Refining our recycling methods, refining our packaging, and so on.

Our other big challenge is to improve our customer experience online. Making sure our offering is much more complete across the whole customer journey.

Internet Fusion Warehouse

Tell me about Internet Fusion’s strategy to cut down on waste

It started in 2015 with Surfdome (one of the outlets in the Internet Fusion Group), so we have a decent legacy in this area. Last year plastic pollution came to the forefront of most peoples’ minds in both the public and corporate spheres with the BBC’s Blue Planet coverage, but we’ve been working on the issue for quite some time.

In 2015, we eliminated 74% of plastic from our own packaging in just one quarter, and that was a reaction to the demand of our customers. That strategy in 2015 took a three-step effort to keep it really communicable to all stakeholders.

1: Awareness. We supported a movement called the Plastic Project. That was a series of content which took the viewer on adventure-type travel to remote locations all around the planet, all the while highlighting that these remote locations were directly affected by marine plastic pollution.

2: Empowerment. We found out very quickly that if you bombard people with a problem (particularly at the scale of plastic pollution), they become overwhelmed. Often, you’ll incite a reverse effect: people switch off and become disengaged with it. You have to go straight in with an empowerment message.

So, we’re the founding supporter of #2minutebeachclean (and the wider 2minute organisation). What that does is let people know that every time they go to the beach, or a national park, or their favourite places, all they need to do is spend two minutes during that visit picking up pieces of plastic and litter and making a difference.

And suddenly you’re empowering people with the fact that they only need to take two minutes out of their time. They don’t need to solve the global crisis, or clean the entire park, they just need to give two minutes.

3: Action. What are we actively doing as a business to tackle plastic pollution? We eliminated plastic across the business in one fell swoop. It worked out to be the equivalent of 650,000 plastic bottles in that one year, and, as I said, 74% of our plastic output. That ushered in a lot of goodwill among our customers.

Surfer looking at sea

Fast-forwarding to 2017, Surfdome became part of the Internet Fusion Group, which has more businesses involved with it. We carried Surfdome’s strategy and packing over to those businesses: every single business involved with Internet Fusion now reflects Surfdome’s packaging.

That reduction in plastic has improved by three times as much as we managed in 2015 owing to all the businesses acting on that strategy: in 2017, the group’s packaging was 91% plastic-free and I’m pleased to say that in 2018, the packaging was 97% plastic free. Let me caveat that: that’s for our outbound packaging, not for the entire business. Unfortunately, we still have to buy pens and plastic products for the business to function.

However, we’ve eliminated bubble wrap and use corrugated cardboard instead. We’ve eliminated almost all our poly mailing bags, and it’s all in 100% recycled cardboard boxes. We barely use any void fill anymore because we have a packaging machine which produces exact-size boxes, but if we do use void filling, it’s 100% recycled paper.

Across the board, we’ve eliminated a lot, and that’s pretty unique for a business of our size in our market. As you can imagine, 91% in 2017 and 97% in 2018: 2019 is going to be very exciting for us as we’re continuing that work. It doesn’t take a genius to guess where we’re heading. However, we strongly believe in only claiming results as opposed to intentions, as intentions are merely hot air.

Forest aerial view

That’s our internal strategy. However, we deal with 750+ brands who often send their products to us wrapped in plastic. So, although we’ve addressed our own outbound packaging (which we directly control), we’re now looking outwards at the brands that supply us.

So, we are working very closely with them to try and reduce the quantity of their packaging and work towards only recyclable and biodegradable packaging. We’ve come up with an innovative process where we have a best-practice guide for packaging.

It works on a traffic light system: we’ll no longer accept products in the red zone. These are the real bad guys in packaging: polystyrene, black plastic, etc. We have an orange zone, which is the minimum standard we expect. And then there’s the green zone, which suggests the direction everyone should be heading. All our brands have to respond to that: by the 1st July, we’re making it a stipulation that they must abide by that through our delivery policy.

The positive response we’ve had to the delivery policy has been overwhelming. We’ve delivered the system in such a way that we’re holding their hands; we’re helping them. We’ve provided them with a best-practice guide instead of just asking them to sort it out. We’ve said: ‘We want to work with you. Here’s our guide.’ We’ve given the brands a long lead in. In fact, we held an open day where we invited them all into our warehouse and explained it in person.

The businesses that we deal with have responded positively: ‘This is fantastic. We knew we had to do something. The delivery policy is a highly useful guide. You’re one of our larger customers, and you’re the spark which has pushed this subject forward in our agenda. We knew we had to do it, but you’re forcing our hand, which is great.’ It’s been very positive. That’s where our biggest opportunity for sustainable change lies: it’s in us working with our supply chain.

Snowboarder in the mountains

Do you get a lot of feedback on your delivery offering?

Absolutely. When we first launched our plastic reduction strategy in 2015, over two-thirds of our social media conversations were around sustainability. We have a large social media following and we were overwhelmed with the response. I have hundreds of screenshots of people taking photos of boxes and saying: ‘Well done’.

That’s also elevated through our charity partners (#2minutebeachclean). We consistently get brilliant feedback through them. It’s very difficult to quantify it, but we do benefit from a massive amount of goodwill from our customer base around the packaging.

Packaging in the industry is often referred to as the ‘final mile’ or the ‘last chance to impress’: if we lead out with a great product offering, fantastic marketing, great customer service, and timely deliveries, and then it turns up on the doorstep wrapped up in a load of landfill that’s going to last thousands of years, it’s not great, because our customers care about the plastic pollution effects on the environment.

If at that last point the box arrives on their doorstep with print which explains it’s biodegradable and 100% recyclable, it’s that that makes the customer think: ‘Cool. I’m shopping with the right business for my beliefs, values and standards’.

Mountaineer up a mountain

What practice exists when packaging and delivering large-ticket items?

First and foremost, we deal with a wide spectrum of technical products, specifically for the equestrian, motocross, and surfing disciplines. Previously we used a lot of bubble-wrap for these items and our competitors still do. This is not easily recyclable for our customers, and inevitably it goes to landfill.

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve eliminated bubble-wrap and replaced it with corrugated card, and what we’ve found is that that transition was cost-neutral. Not only that, but it’s also quicker to use because there are fewer layers, so it’s faster to wrap, and more protective in certain situations. And obviously cardboard is biodegradable and 100% recyclable.

Specifically around surfboards, snowboards, and skateboards, we’ve supported an innovative packaging solution called Flexi-Hex. Flexi-Hex improves protection, it’s quicker to wrap products in, and, again, it’s made out of cardboard, not plastic.

This was new to the market and we helped them launch: we hard-tested through our processes to make sure it performed, and we’ve adopted it throughout our business. We sell it to the public, and we’ve actually recommended that all our suppliers use this system as well. The packaging machine we use in our warehouses can wrap larger items as well: anything up to a large rucksack or an airline bag.

Forest

Do any different challenges exist between packaging clothing and sports equipment?

We have specific pack-benches: the vast majority of products we sell are clothing and footwear. They go through our main pack-benches and the packaging machine. But we do have a large and bulky specialist equipment pack bench. There are guys there who are specifically trained: they’ve got an eye for what each product is and what the specific requirements for each product are: Does it need more protection? Does it rattle around? Does it need to be held in place?

Do you take the possibility of a return into account before shipping the product?

Absolutely. On all our packaging we have clear messaging: ‘Open me carefully so you can reuse me (especially for returns). If not, recycle me. If you can’t, I will biodegrade.’ It’s the first thing that you see. Almost all our items arrive in a box: if you tear the tape off (which is paper tape not plastic tape in most cases), you can put all the items back in the box, tape up the box, and that can come back to us.

We do provide returns information: when I said we were fine-tuning online and operationally, we’re looking for places in the customer journey where we can inject relevant messages, whether that be through confirmation emails or follow-up emails: where we can explain how the customer needs to be more responsible with the packaging that they send back to us.

We’ve had all sorts sent back to us, as you can imagine. One of the best was the corner of a builder’s sandbag. They cut the corner off, taped it up, and sent it to us. Obviously, we need to be looking at ourselves when it comes to reducing plastic in our packaging; we need to be looking at our brands. And we need to be looking at our customers and bringing them along on our journey as well.

Packaging with recycle text

What happens to the products that are returned?

We have a specific returns department who are trained to check over the product and look for any damage. We ask our customers to tick why they have returned an item: sometimes it’s just because it’s the wrong size or the wrong colour, and from a sustainability point of view, that product needs to be used. It’s gone through a damaging process to be made, and the worst thing we can do is discard those products.

This is the fine-tuning we’re doing this year. If it can go back into stock it does. If it doesn’t, we have a process of offering that to staff as a perk, as a lot of our staff members are engaged in the activities which we endorse, so it’s a great perk for them to get good gear at discounted rates.

And if that doesn’t happen, then we provide the products to charities that don’t on-sell the equipment. We provide to ‘Surfers Not Street Children’. They are a charity in South Africa and Mozambique who are saving lives through surfing.

They’re pulling kids off the streets who don’t have parents. They’re bringing them into surfing and giving them a roof over their heads. We provide clothing for them as well as surfboards and wetsuits. It’s a really nice thing for the brand too, as they’re seeing this great activation with the kids enjoying the outdoors wearing their products.

Surfer on the ocean

Can you reuse the boxes which have been sent back via returns?

Unfortunately, only in very small cases. We do have a very high standard of recycling in our warehouse: we have a scheme called Smart Recycling. We sort our waste into lots of different streams. In actual fact, we gain a rebate from our recycling and that’s invested back into sustainability, so we can improve sustainability elsewhere in the business.

To answer the original question, our boxes come back in all sorts of states. Sometimes they’ve been ripped or knocked about quite a bit. It’s very rare to find a box which we can use again, so they’re recycled, not reused.

The point is, because they are cardboard, they’re highly recyclable. If we were still using poly bags of various different colours, where the customer had added all sorts of different tape, it would become very difficult to segregate the paper that’s inside, the tape on the outside, and all the different elements for recycling. Cardboard is still highly recyclable, even if it has plastic tape on it. We’ve done the job at the front end, so by the time it comes back to us, it’s in a state which is highly processable for us to recycle.

The Internet Fusion Group are:

Internet Fusion - http://www.internetfusion.co.uk

Surfdome www.surfdome.com

Blackleaf - www.Blackleaf.com

Webtogs - www.Webtogs.com

Derby House - www.DerbyHouseStore.com

Ride away - www.RideAwayStore.com

ExtremePie - www.ExtremePie.com

The Priory - www.The-Priory.com

Fitness Footwear - www.FitnessFootwear.com

Nightgear - www.NightgearStore.com

SAD - www.SAD.co.uk

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