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Innovators in Eco-Friendly Packaging and Shipping Supplies
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The Ultimate Guide to Custom Shipping Boxes

Posted By on Dec 20th 2023

eCommerce companies know that packaging is essential. Not only must it protect the products being sent, but it should also place the brand in a positive light. Unboxing a product is part of the shopping experience, and exceptional packaging can elevate your brand above the competition. Custom-branded shipping boxes create an unforgettable unboxing experience for your customers. But, before you make a bulk order, you must ensure that box packaging suits your customers and products. While it has its place, there are times when mailers or other forms of packaging might make more sense. On top of this, not all shipping boxes are the same. Once you decide that custom boxes are the way to go, you must determine which boxes are best for your brand. That’s why we’ve put together this handy guide covering everything you need to know about custom shipping boxes before you buy. Let’s dive in!

Table of Contents:

What is a shipping box?

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A shipping box—also referred to as a packing box or a mailer box—is characterized by its corrugated walls. The slight padding makes it a robust packaging choice, ideal for fragile items or those that require something more rigid than a poly mailer or other more flexible packaging choices. Depending on how they are secured, there are a few different shipping boxes to choose from. We will talk more about that below.

What’s the difference between a box and a carton?

The critical difference between boxes and cartons is their thickness. Boxes are typically corrugated and rigid, suitable for stacking and long-term storage. Conversely, cartons are thinner—think cereal boxes or milk cartons—and less durable but more lightweight. It’s usually best to choose a shipping box or a mailer over a carton for shipping, as cartons may not fully protect your products during transit.

Why choose box packaging?

Because of their rigidity and durability, mailing boxes are ideal for shipping items that need protection. Almost all products can be shipped in a corrugated box—apparel, appliances, jewelry, skincare, yarn, food, etc. The question isn’t what can be shipped, but what should you ship in a box.

The pros of shipping in a box:

  • They do a great job protecting your products.
  • They make for a sleek presentation.
  • They come in virtually infinite dimensions, so you can likely find one to meet your needs.
  • Once filled, shipping boxes are stackable, making them ideal for warehouse storage.
  • They are made with paper, a renewable resource, and can comprise up to 100% recycled content.
  • They are recyclable and compostable.

The cons of shipping in a box:

  • They are not 100% weatherproof.
  • They are typically more expensive than mailers.
  • They are heavier than mailers. This can result in higher shipping costs on both inbound boxes and outbound boxes.
  • They take up more space in your warehouse.
  • They must be assembled and taped, requiring more labor than a mailer.
  • They use more material than a mailer.

Which products are best suited for a shipping box?

Some items ship better in a box. They may be too heavy for a poly or paper mailer or too fragile for more flexible packaging choices. Here’s a list of product types that should be shipped in a box.

Large or bulky items

These include boots, water bottles, blenders, or children’s toys. Items that are wide, tall, and relatively deep often need a box rather than a mailer. Often, these items carry some weight and might break through a paper or poly mailer. Additionally, bulky items in a mailer are difficult to stack in a truck or store in a warehouse. It’s easier for the shipper to pack these items in a stackable mailing box.

Collections of items

If you’re shipping a few items in a single order, a box works better than a mailer. If your business sells smaller products—like face cream or jewelry—you can have one or two shipping box sizes on hand that work for almost all orders.

Fragile items

Items that must be handled carefully, such as large glass bottles or candles, need a sturdy shipping box. While small, compact bottles can often be wrapped and shipped in padded mailers or bubble mailers, a shipping box is the best option for larger glass bottles. Boxes also tend to better protect items with sharp corners, like hardcover books and picture frames, than mailers.

Items that demand high-end presentation

A custom shipping box provides an impressive experience for customers. Boxes retain their shape and allow items to be arranged appealingly with customized elements like tissue paper. For this reason, some companies selling products that could be sold in a mailer (such as apparel) will still opt for a box.

Items shipped as part of a subscription service

Subscription services or “box of the month” companies typically use boxes for the above reasons. Successful subscription services understand the importance of creating an appealing unboxing experience that keeps customers returning.

Learn more on our blog: Choosing Between a Mailer or a Shipping Box

What type of shipping box should I use?

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When it comes to custom shipping boxes, there are five basic styles to choose from. Here’s what each is best suited for.

Tab locking (TL)

These are the boxes we recommend the most and sell the most. Many brand-conscious eCommerce businesses use their classic presentation style to create a fantastic unboxing experience for their customers. Logos and branding look great on the box lid, while the locking tabs create a clean seal. They’re also ideal for most eCommerce products, including apparel, accessories, cosmetics, small toys, and outdoor wear. However, you should avoid the TL when shipping large boxes (greater than 15” x 15”) or heavy goods (> 15 lbs).

Literature mailer (LM)

Very similar in design to the TL box, this box style can be used for the same items, and it even shares a similar material footprint, which is why we price them the same. For most customers, the choice between the two comes down to aesthetics. The literature mailer’s seam is on the top edge of the box, whereas the tab locking box has it on the bottom edge. Furthermore, The LM’s lid rests on the sides of the box, which hides the side seams and folds that you can see on a TL. The LM is also quicker to assemble due to the lid folding into the box versus the TL’s two tabs that fold into slots.

Regular slotted container (RSC)

As the traditional industrial box, RSCs are probably what you think of when you picture shipping boxes. Each side has a tab that folds over, and the seam is taped shut on the top and bottom. RSCs are great for heavy products (> 15 lbs) and those that require deep box sizes (> 6”). Many customers use RSCs when packing fragile items in packaging paper or heavy items such as books, liquids, or ceramics.

Five-panel folder (FPF)

The five-panel folder is very similar in design to the RSC, except FPFs have an extra inside flap that reinforces the box's structural integrity. This design is best for tall or long items such as a wooden sculpted Statue of Liberty, a skyscraper model, or a baseball bat.

One panel fold (OPF)

In a class all by itself, the OPF is an excellent box for slim, flat items such as picture frames, prints, and books. These are sometimes referred to as mailer boxes because they are thin and have some of the characteristics of a flat envelope mailer, even though they are constructed from corrugated materials. The OPF flaps fold around the product and meet on the backside, creating a clean front panel with no seams that look great when printed. We have several variations depending on how quickly you need to pack your items. For example, we have developed a wrap-around OPF that allows you to wrap the product instead of folding it over each of the four sides. The OPF is a great way to package large volumes of the right product in record time.

Corrugated pads

While corrugated pads are not a custom shipping box type, they are a custom-sized corrugated product that serves as a shipping accessory, so we’re including a description here. These typically serve one of three purposes:
  • Product divider: Imagine two similarly sized wooden jewelry boxes sitting side by side in your shipping box. You’re concerned they will knock against each other, chipping paint or damaging the wood. Place a corrugated pad between the jewelry boxes to keep them from bouncing into each other during transit.
  • Additional compression protection: A semi-fragile bottle of lotion or oil could benefit from a layer of compression protection. Adding a pad to the package's top and/or bottom gives you more cushioning upon impact.
  • Increase the rigidity of a print: Used frequently by artists when shipping with mailers, a corrugated pad adds rigidity to your print to reduce the chance of bending during transit.
Scored pad dividers can separate two or more products within your box, providing more visibility and protection to each piece. Imagine shipping a t-shirt and a rolled print in a single box. Without a divider, the t-shirt will move around, damaging the print. With a divider, the t-shirt can arrive looking sharp and folded, and your print will remain intact.

Trays

Trays are not technically boxes like pads, but they play a critical role in shipping. They’re often used to transport plants, cans, bottles, and other items within a retail or warehouse environment. Trays are similar to Tab Locking Boxes and Literature Mailers, just missing the top closure.

Choosing the correct shipping box for your products comes down to the types of products you’re shipping and the aesthetic and unboxing experience you’re seeking. Need help to figure out the best shipping box for your eCommerce company? Try out some free samples, or contact us for more guidance.

What are flutes?

A corrugated sheet has linerboard (the flat outer covering) and flutes (the s-shaped, wavy paper between the linerboard). The flute enables corrugated sheets to resist bending and allows the sheets and boxes made from them to withstand pressure.

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Flutes vary in two main characteristics: their height (which creates the thickness of the cardboard sheet) and how tightly or loosely they’re waved.

What does shipping box strength mean?

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Three factors determine the strength of a specific box:
  • The style
  • The dimensions
  • The strength rating of the corrugated sheets
This strength rating of the corrugated sheets depends on:
  • Flutes
  • Weight
  • The thickness of the linerboard
  • The material used for the linerboard
  • The adhesive used to glue the flutes to the linerboard
Shipping box strength is noted with a number and a letter—the number refers to how much weight a single sheet can withstand when standing on its edge, while the letter refers to the tightness of the corrugate waves. The higher the number and the letter, the stronger the box is.

Learn more on our blog: Understanding Shipping Box Strength

What size shipping box do I need?

At EcoEnclose, every single box we sell is custom cut, so it’s the exact size you need it to be. Minimize the extra, unnecessary air within your custom shipping box for more eco-friendly, less expensive, and visually appealing shipping. Are you trying to determine the right size for your custom shipping box? We recommend laying out your items to ship on a table and measuring an imaginary boundary around your products to determine the length, width, and height of your shipping box. Note that the dimensions you input on our site for boxes refer to the inside dimensions of the box you will receive. If you have any doubts, we recommend ordering a free sample before stocking up to ensure your box is the perfect size.

Learn more on our blog: Right-Size Your Sustainable Packaging

Can my custom shipping boxes also be custom-branded?

Yes! Branding your boxes can be a great way to promote your brand and wow your customers. There are several printing options available to eCommerce companies and retailers. Here are the three most common box printing styles.

Flexographic printing

With this type of printing, we’ll turn your design into a “plate,” which is then used to stamp your boxes with fast-drying ink. We charge a setup fee, and it will take a little time to create your plate, but then the per-box printing fee is relatively low. Furthermore, we will keep your plate for all future orders once your plate has been created. As a bonus, flexo printing (unlike digital printing) allows for using soy- and water-based inks, which are non-toxic and safely recycled or composted.

Screen printing

This is a process by which ink is forced onto a surface through a prepared screen of fine material to create the desired design. Because the ink is applied thickly, it creates vibrant designs, perfect for colorful branding and logos. It’s typically used on apparel but can print on corrugated cardboard.

Digital printing

Digital prints allow for an immense array of colors and designs in matte or gloss finish, and the setup time is pretty low. However, the cost per box is relatively high, so digital corrugated printing isn’t typically used for high-volume shipper boxes but instead on displays or retail packaging.

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At EcoEclose, we opt for flexographic printing for its gorgeous aesthetic and friendliness to the planet. We offer single-color custom printing on virtually any box size and style for just 100 units. For further customization, we also have multi-panel printing options, and we can print on the inside or outside of each box in one or two colors. This means you can get the environmental benefits of flexographic printing on 100% recycled kraft boxes, and you’ll still get a gorgeous, well-designed box that conveys your brand identity.

Even better, when you work with EcoEnclose, you can print your boxes with Algae Ink™—a unique carbon sequestering black ink made with algae cells.

Learn more: EcoEnclose’s custom printing services for boxes

Are custom shipping boxes eco-friendly compared to poly mailers?

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There are many things to consider regarding your shipping containers' entire environmental life cycle. When comparing a plastic mailer to a paper shipping box, it first seems obvious—paper is better for the environment than plastic, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Shipping boxes carry a higher footprint during production

Typically, a cardboard box requires more resources and energy than an equivalent plastic mailer. One 13” x 19” x 2” cardboard box requires 0.7 lbs of paper, while one 12.5” x 18.25” x.25” poly mailer requires 0.052 lbs of plastic. The same box takes 23 times more energy and emits six times more CO2 in production than the mailer. So, even though paper comes from a renewable resource while plastic derives from nonrenewable fossil fuels, the production of corrugated boxes carries a higher environmental footprint than plastic.

Cardboard carries a higher carbon footprint associated with shipping

The carbon footprint of shipping is driven both by the dimensions and weight of packages. Cardboard is typically heavier than an equivalent poly mailer and requires more energy to ship.

Boxes have a cleaner end-of-life

Most boxes and poly mailers can be reused at least once. However, most of them are not reused. Consumers are far more likely to recycle cardboard boxes than plastic mailers. According to a 2022 American Forest & Paper Association study, were recycled. This shows that although poly mailers have some eco advantages in manufacturing and logistics, most are still landfill-bound. Conversely, boxes are more likely to be recycled and returned to the industrial supply chain.

Bottom line: Make the best decision you can

Paper has its advantages, just like plastic mailers. Ultimately, we recommend you make the best decision for your products and company. What protects and presents your goods as effectively as possible? If you have decided that boxes are the best solution for you, then the best thing you can do for the planet is to work hard to make all aspects of your shipper boxes sustainable. The good news is that EcoEnclose makes it easy to make sustainable choices. Most of our packaging options are made from 100% recycled materials and are recyclable, ensuring as little impact on the planet as possible. No matter which option you choose, it will be a good one.

Learn more on our blog: How to Choose Between a Mailer and a Shipping Box

How do you develop a truly sustainable custom shipping box?

Many companies use a shipping box and, because the box is curbside recyclable, showcase it as a sustainable option. This is incredibly misleading; a box made with virgin content is a major environmental miss. Brands that genuinely want to do right by the planet need to choose packaging that goes above and beyond when it comes to the planet. Here are the key things sustainability-minded businesses should look for in their packaging.

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Choose as much recycled content as possible

Many companies tout “made with recycled content” on their boxes. This is a fuzzy statement that, as a standard, typically means that it’s made with approximately 30% recycled content. This isn’t enough. Look for boxes with 100% recycled content and as much post-consumer waste as possible. Our boxes are 100% recycled, with at least 95% post-consumer waste. Acknowledging that paper products made with recycled content are weaker than their virgin counterparts is essential. Virgin paper fibers are longer, and longer fibers interweave better, leading to stronger paper. In some situations, 100% recycled corrugated isn’t strong enough. But we’ve found that most products shipped to customers work well in our 100% recycled boxes. We encourage you to order a sample or contact us if you have concerns about the quality and strength of recycled cardboard.

Make your box as small and snug as possible for your needs

If you order stock sizes from a supplier, work hard to find the most suitable size for your needs, or, better yet, order custom sizes so you know you are using only what you need. Boxes that are too big for their products require more materials and protective filling and often weigh more, contributing to your environmental footprint. Opting for a snug fit mitigates those issues. We are committed to reducing waste. That’s why EcoEnclose’s 100% Recycled Shipping Boxes are available in many configurations, and every box is customized to your specific needs so your unique products fit perfectly.

Encourage your customers to reuse, recycle, or compost their boxes

Companies are in a unique position to encourage behavior change. Use your brand to encourage your customers to make more environmental choices. Let them know how to properly dispose of or reuse your packaging in your confirmation or shipping emails. Add a stamp or a note in their box encouraging them to dispose of their shipping boxes responsibly. Or take a cue from some of our super creative companies and provide cool ideas for reuse. For example, one company filled their box with seed paper and encouraged customers to plant a garden in the box itself.

Choose eco-friendly shipping services

A significant portion of any eCommerce company’s carbon footprint comes from shipping. Minimize your footprint by choosing eco-friendly shipping options. If you do not need your boxes immediately, select ground shipping and encourage your customers to do the same.

Shop custom shipping boxes

Ordering custom shipping boxes is simple. Select your style, dimensions, strength, and branding - we'll handle the rest. For branded orders, we have a real, live human proof your artwork prior to production to ensure your vision is captured into a beautifully finished product.

Get started: order custom shipping boxes here

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