Overconsumption and returns weigh on the environment, but meal kits are surprisingly Earth-friendly

When Erin Houston started her online sustainable clothing company, wearwell, she was physically packing subscription boxes herself and shipping them off – then watching them come back about five days later. 

Erin Houston headshot
Erin Houston

The industry return rate for sized clothing in subscription boxes was 80%, and her fledgling company’s rate was even higher.

“I was seeing the amount of boxes we were sending go out and come back and just seeing this massive waste of cardboard but also thinking about the carbon footprint that was going into that shipping business model,” said Houston, wearwell’s CEO. 

The experience led her to abandon the subscription model and transform wearwell into an online store with stylists available by chat to give advice on sizes and fit. Now wearwell’s return rate has dropped to about 14%. 

More Americans are turning to subscriptions to serve a variety of needs, from clothing to meals to cat litter. 

Subscription e-commerce sales totaled nearly $33.5 billion in 2022, a 15% increase over the previous year, according to Insider Intelligence, which predicted it would keep growing at a similar rate for the next two years. But subscription services, with the exception of meal kits, can have an environmental dark side: overconsumption and excessive returns. 

“Products are designed for the consumer instead of the human,” said Kedar Karkare, co-founder of Karma Wallet, which rates companies by their sustainability. “In a consumer-driven culture, yeah, signing up for something once and not thinking about it and feeling good every time you get products every month … can lead to overconsumption.” 

The subscription model is here to stay, said Jeremy Bartlow, a partner at the Cambridge Group, a part of PA Consulting. It’s an easy way for entrepreneurs to enter the market quickly and get their products directly to consumers. Eager to tap into the direct-to-consumer business, larger companies often buy the successful ones, such as Unilever’s acquisition of the Dollar Shave Club, which was sold again last year to private equity firm Nexus Capital Management.

“From a business model perspective, the brands want to lock you in,” Bartlow said. 

Bartlow and other experts noted that it’s difficult to determine the environmental impact of any specific product because of the multitude of factors from carbon capture to water use to pollution and plastics that would need to be tracked during that item’s entire life cycle. 

But the toll of subscription boxes has even caught the attention of the United Nations, which issued a report titled: “Most subscription services are not delivering on sustainability.” 

“Given our increasing resource consumption rates we need to consume differently and more lightly,” said Garrette Clark, the UN Environment Programme’s sustainable lifestyles program officer, in the report.

There’s a stark contrast in one type of subscription box: meal kits. 

Meal kits decrease food waste due to their specifically proportioned ingredients and have lower greenhouse gas emissions, on average, than grocery store meals, a University of Michigan study found. Those factors offset the increased packaging.  

Angelique Goulet with her dogs Arlo and Gully and their subscription boxes, Ollie and BarkBox. (Photo courtesy of Goulet)

Like many customers, Angelique Goulet in Buffalo, Minnesota, started using subscriptions during the pandemic. Now she has four: two meal kits; Ollie, for high-end dog food; and BarkBox, which delivers toys and chews every month for her dogs Arlo, Gully, and Gunnar. 

Even though she has an influx of cardboard boxes, she mostly finds other uses for them and says the just-right ingredient measurements of her meal kits more than make up the difference in her trash. 

“We always ended up with so much food waste, I used to throw out so much stuff,” Goulet said. “They give you just what you need.”

It turns out there’s an even more important factor than whether you buy your food from a grocery store, meal kit, or farmer’s market.

“It matters a lot more to choose less meat and more environmentally friendly options,” said Daniel Posen, associate professor and Canada research chair at the University of Toronto. 

He noted that switching to just one vegetarian meal a week has a bigger environmental impact than reducing emissions by eating only food that was grown within a 100-mile radius. (Cows eat a lot of vegetarian meals before they land on a plate.) 

Other types of subscription boxes, whether selling home goods, beauty products, or clothes, often include an element of surprise and can create a psychological effect of receiving a gift. 

Instead of chasing that feeling, customers should look for subscriptions for which they know they will use all of the products, said Kaitlin Mattos, an assistant professor of environment and sustainability at Fort Lewis College.

“Reduce, reuse, recycle,” Mattos said. “People often think about that as just a saying, but it’s a hierarchical list. So you’re supposed to reduce first.”

Parts of the industry could also self-correct. Bartlow predicted that companies with astronomical return rates and those selling products their customers don’t use will likely go out of business. 

Customers don’t have to give up their favorite subscriptions, Mattos said, but making any small change to reduce consumption can help, even cutting back on that one subscription that isn’t truly needed. 

“The beautiful thing about the environment, about trying to protect the environment, is that if everybody does a little bit, it’s good,” Mattos said. “If everybody does a little bit more, it’s better. We just keep winning the more effort we make.”

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