This Woman Figured Out the Best Thing to Do with Old Amazon Boxes
Erin Stewart — Social AdVentures
The vast majority of us shop online, and for all the convenience of getting a toothbrush delivered within 24 hours, we’ve likely still been annoyed by the obligatory cardboard boxes. For those tired of wasteful packaging piling up around them, a new company is making it possible to do a little good with it.
Give Back Box is a social enterprise that partners with major retailers like Amazon, REI, and Ann Taylor to encourage consumers to reuse their delivery boxes to send unwanted household items and clothing to Goodwill for free. The average U.S. household has an embarrassment of unwanted stuff—approximately $7,000 worth, according to some estimates. Through the company, over 100,000 boxes of household goods are donated each month.
Monika Wiela got the idea for Give Back Box when she was running an online shoe store in Chicago after moving to the U.S. from Poland. One day she noticed a man sitting on the sidewalk outside her office holding a sign that said he needed shoes. “That was the moment when it really hit me. I had thousands of shoes with which I could help this guy,” she says via Skype. Granted, she only sold women’s shoes, but with a warehouse full of empty shoeboxes and a broad customer base, surely her company could help the man out.
Wiela got the man a pair of shoes later that day, but she wasn’t able to find him. Nonetheless, she was inspired to use her existing business to facilitate donations. Someone buying a pair of her shoes could use the box they came in to send back a pair of men’s shoes they no longer wanted. “That worked,” she says. “And I was hooked.”
Give Back Box—based in Los Angeles but operational nationwide—was created shortly after, in 2012, when Wiela realized that facilitating donations could be profitable. Charities like Goodwill pay to build and maintain infrastructure like donation centers and bins, as well as marketing to encourage potential donors. Under Give Back Box’s business model, Goodwill—selected by Wiela for its ability to process massive amounts of donations on a national scale—only shells out shipping costs for donations it’s guaranteed to get, plus a fee for Give Back Box’s services. In return, says Wiela, “all they have to do is just get the boxes and unpack them.”
The convenience cuts both ways. “People buy so much online, even groceries, but we still expect them to drive to donation centers,” Wiela says. When consumers receive a box with a flyer informing them about the Give Back Box program, they fill it with up to 70 pounds of donations, print a prepaid shipping label from Give Back Box’s website, and ship it to the nearest Goodwill. Give Back Box offers ways to schedule a pickup with UPS or the U.S. Postal Service to make donating even easier. Wiela is delighted that her company allows donors who are housebound or unable to drive the chance to give back. “They still want to help,” says Wiela. “That makes me most happy because it’s not only you helping others, but you help people to help others.”
The simplicity and convenience of her idea helped Wiela get support from the industry’s most important player: Amazon. Give Back Box received a flurry of press last December with outlets from Fortune to USA Today reporting that the e-commerce giant’s customers could repurpose boxes used to ship holiday gifts as part of the program. While they’re the largest, Amazon is just one of nearly 20 partners so far. Weila says retailers are generally happy to participate because it means their boxes don’t end up in landfills, and it’s an easy way to support the community. She’s exploring models that pass some costs on to these retail partners as well, to ease the burden on Goodwill.
Starting Give Back Box has been particularly challenging, says Wiela, because nobody has done this before. “When you start something like this, every single step you need to figure out from scratch,” she says. She’s currently in the midst of expansion to Canada and Europe, where there are different systems for shipping and charity donation, which means facing those challenges all over again.
“But actually I love it,” says Wiela. “When I don’t know something, I find so much joy figuring out how to do it. … It’s the most rewarding when everyone says, ‘It’s impossible, it cannot be done, it cannot be done,’ but then you find a way to do it.”
Give Back Box has also been a way for Wiela to change her own focus in life. While she originally became an entrepreneur primarily to make money, she felt like something was missing even when her shoe business was profitable. “I was feeling like it’s not enough to give you happiness. It was like an itch under your skin.” Wiela now feels that having a social function is important for any business.
“I feel like I’m accomplishing something important, and basically changing the industry,” says Wiela. “It’s a total revolution in the donation goods industry. For me, that’s success.”
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