Has Subscription Box Culture Gone Too Far?

Here's what those curated goodies are costing you, your local economy, and the environment.
subscription box

The subscription box industry has come a long way since Birchbox started the trend in 2010. From healthy snacks to art supplies to books to accessories, there's a box for just about everything you can think of. In fact, there's so many options that aggregate sites like Hello Subscription and My Subscription Addiction have become a useful resource for shoppers hoping to find the best box for their buck.

There's no denying the convenience of having packages delivered right to your door. But when you sign up for a subscription box service, receiving those regular packages can tack on hidden costs you might not be considering. Read on to learn about the impact subscription boxes are having on the environment, local businesses, and your wallet.

It's Not Just Startups

The age of scrappy little companies putting together boxes on a shoestring budget seems to be ending. Big retailers are starting to cash in on the trend, too. Recently, Amazon joined the subscription box crowd, and began offering a variety of boxes. Subscribers can bag sweets, STEM toys, and even sample boxes (which can be essentially free after credits). Target offers beauty and baby boxes on a monthly basis, although they're in limited supply and they sell out fast.

A box full of Neutrogena and Secret samples from Target isn't going to impress Birchbox's crowd.

While some shoppers are obviously excited to try out boxes from big retailers, these boxes may disappoint more discerning subscribers. A box full of Neutrogena and Secret samples from Target isn't going to impress Birchbox's crowd. Even so, Birchbox CEO Katia Beauchamp recently wrote a Medium piece about how subscription services need to embrace a more traditional retail model if they want to survive.

Far From Green

Even environmentally conscious consumers might not think about the impact of having multiple subscription boxes delivered every month. Many subscription services are billed as "green" or "eco-friendly," and contain all kinds of natural, sustainable goodies. But how much sense does it make to buy a green box if it's being delivered by a vehicle that's adding to the pollution problem?

SEE ALSO: "Green" Cleaning Products Aren't That Expensive — But Aren't Always Green

Additionally, the idea of having organic snacks dropped at your door sounds great... unless you think about the non-green packaging. Even if the product is tucked into recycled or sustainable containers, it's unlikely that all the materials in those shipments are eco-friendly. Plus, it's up to the consumer to properly recycle everything that is recyclable. In the end, subscribing to an eco-friendly box is probably a step backwards if you're trying to reduce your waste.

Local Businesses Suffer

Subscription boxes are great for trying items you may not be able to find on your grocery store shelves. Services like the Cheese of the Month Club and OrangeGlad allow you to sample goodies from all over the country, and even the world. But when you buy that cheese from France, or that chocolate from Switzerland, you could be missing out on local businesses that are just as good (or maybe even better).

Opting for artisan monthly boxes means you're likely not supporting small businesses in the same category. And yes, that can have an impact on your local economy.

Opting for artisan monthly boxes means you're likely not supporting small businesses in the same category. And yes, that can have an impact on your local economy. When you're paying a steep $6 for a loaf of homemade challah or $4 for a jar of jalapeño relish, you're helping a local craftsman hone their skills. (At least you're saving money on shipping!)

Convenience Is Costly

Just because a box is offering you the chance to try a variety of products for one flat fee doesn't mean it's worth it. According to Liz Cadman, the creator of My Subscription Addiction, shoppers typically want the value of their boxes to be at least double what they paid.

SEE ALSO: Will New UPS Fees Make Your Holiday Shopping More Expensive?

Not every box can live up to that goal, though. For instance, paying for a meal kit delivery service can be incredibly convenient, as receiving the exact portions and ingredients for particular recipes makes cooking much easier. And yet, similar recipes can easily be found online — the kit's entire "value" stems from saving you a trip to the grocery store... where you could use coupons or choose cheaper brands to make your meal cheaper.

Not Every Item Is a Home Run

No matter what kind of subscription you prefer, there's always a risk of receiving a package of things you don't care about or can't use. And even if one box is great, that doesn't mean every shipment will be a winner.

No matter what kind of subscription you prefer, there's always a risk of receiving a package of things you don't care about or can't use.

Many boxes send out items based on a monthly theme. Other boxes advertise hand-picking or "curation" based on your personal style. Unfortunately, even personal stylists can't knock it out of the park every time. This is something to think about before deciding to go with something like Stitch Fix, where you pay for a box to be shipped to you, and then choose whether to buy the items in the box.

The Market Is Saturated

It's not uncommon to see a super niche company pop up, only to be followed by ten more copycat services trying to do the exact same thing. Even the most talented beauty gurus don't need eleven nail polish subscriptions every month.

And that's a shame, because it can mean your fav won't last. The box you take a chance on today might not be around a year from now. With heavyweights like Amazon and Target jumping on the subscription trend, you can expect to see more upheaval.

Readers, do you subscribe to any boxes? Do you think they're worth the price? Let us know in the comments below!

Julie Ramhold
Senior Staff Writer/Consumer Analyst

Julie's work has been featured on CNBC, GoBankingRates, Kiplinger, Marketwatch, Money, The New York Times, Real Simple, US News, WaPo, WSJ, Yahoo!, and more. She's extolled the virtues of DealNews in interviews with Cheddar TV, GMA, various podcasts, and affiliates across the United States, plus one in Canada.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).


Leave a comment!

or Register
Stay woke dealnews - I hate hearing about deals but love hearing about fossil fuels.
Barkbox is the only subscription I have and it works out pretty well. I got a deal from groupon originally and everytime the price increases I attempt to cancel and they offer me the lower price again so I keep it. I have 4 dogs so I pay for a regular plus an extra toy and they all get something. They have been getting the box long enough they recognize it and get so excited.
michael bonebright (DealNews)
We used Loot Crate for awhile, and it was neat getting the stuff... but eventually we ended up with a bunch of things we had zero interest in. I can buy my own cool socks, thanks!
I concur with Rawmeat below, I think a lot of these services are great, such as food services, but the price tag is far too high. Blue Apron is $60/week for three meals when I can easily go to the grocery store and spend $70 but give myself three meals per day for a week. I think these services are for upper class that can already afford the convenience they offer.
I do the meal delivery services. I like the ease of it and that some of the items are not available in my area. I do switch between who is giving me the best deal. If you cancel one they will usually give you a deal in 2 months after to come back.
Meal subscription is so convenient and offers many healthful meals that you might never try or even be familiar with on your own. New selections every week. I liked that part of it. They are too pricey for me, though, considering you are prepping and cooking yourself. I tried them at the introductory rate only. I was distressed at all the packaging. I could some of it but not all. For a lot of people, doesn't the inconvenience of draining ice packs, disposing of insulation, and dealing with all the cardboard cause more inconvenience?
Barkbox was worth it for a couple years when I got a puppy. The value for the yearly subscription (vs half year or monthly) was excellent, and we built a stash of toys and good quality treats. The dog knew it was for her when the box arrived and loved unpacking it herself. So fun! After a couple years, she had plenty of toys, and we didn't need treats all the time for training, so we stopped the service. I'd do that one again.