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Export packaging guide – 7 considerations for international shipping

Richard Coombes: Last Updated 27th March 2024
Posted In: Guides and Advice | Transit Protection xx 31623

An overview of export packaging requirements

A detailed guide to shipping products outside the UK

If your business ships your products outside the UK, you’ll already know the importance of suitable export packaging. But what if you are looking to begin exporting, or need to switch packaging suppliers?

Export packaging protects goods during international shipping. Export packaging includes wooden shipping crates and pallets, rotationally moulded cases, metal drums and heavy-duty corrugated boxes. Export packaging must protect contents, minimise space and weight requirements, and be commercially viable.

This export packaging guide covers the main factors to consider when switching or looking for a new packaging supplier or considering exporting your products for the first time.



Seven considerations for export packaging

Export packaging requires careful consideration of several factors to ensure successful international shipment. Collectively, these points aim to facilitate the smooth and secure transportation of products across borders.

The seven main factors to consider when assessing export packaging requirements are:

  • The varying levels of protection for export packaging.
  • Preventing theft and loss.
  • The mode of transportation of your packaging.
  • The costs involved in transit packaging.
  • Waste legislation.
  • Requirements specific to timber packaging.
  • Creating an export packing list.


Prevention of damage to goods during shipping

The primary purpose of export packaging is to prevent damage to goods during the complex process of international shipment.

Export packaging should be able to withstand any shock or impact caused by mishandling, as well as vibration that it may encounter at various parts of the supply chain. It should also be strong enough to withstand external forces if stacked.

Depending on the type of export packaging, it can offer a protective barrier against weather conditions, such as rain, humidity, and temperature fluctuations, which can be crucial for preserving the integrity of certain products. This is particularly true of specialist options such as large roto mould cases and bespoke GRP containers.

Additional inserts and dunnage – such as divider sets, cradles and foam inserts – can also significantly improve protection for high-value and/or fragile items.

Regardless of the form of packaging used, it must prevent damage from occurring from mishandling. Failure to do so can result in costly returns, sending replacements, and loss of future business.

Large export packaging units in a warehouse
An example of large export packaging.


Prevent theft and provide extra protection with security options

Preventing theft and tampering is a critical aspect of export packaging. Fortunately, you can employ various strategies to enhance security throughout the shipping process.

One key method to safeguard goods is the practice of containerisation, effectively enclosing goods in wooden shipping containers by securing them with nails or metalwork.

This practice provides a physical barrier against unauthorised access and simplifies the handling and tracking of goods during transit.

Secure straps, such as heavy-duty nylon or metal bands, can further reinforce the packaging and discourage tampering. These straps add structural integrity to the pallets or containers, making it more difficult for unauthorised access without leaving visible signs of interference.

Export packaging appearance

Maintaining a discreet and plain exterior for export packaging is another important consideration. Avoiding prominent branding or labelling that reveals the contents can be crucial in deterring theft.

Plain packaging reduces the appeal of the shipment to potential thieves, as it conceals the value or nature of the goods. Minimising external information decreases the risk of theft, reducing the chances of attracting unwanted attention during transit.

Mode of transport

Choosing to transport by road, rail, air or sea

The mode of transportation significantly influences export packaging requirements for goods in international trade.

Different shipment methods have distinct characteristics, and understanding these nuances is crucial in determining the appropriate packaging strategies.

Air transport

Goods transported by air generally require less protective packaging compared to sea shipments. This is because air transportation involves quicker transit times and typically less handling, reducing the exposure of the goods to potential damage.

Airfreight costs are typically based on weight, so minimising packaging or using lightweight options while maintaining adequate protection becomes essential for cost efficiency.

Whilst goods transported by air may need less protective packaging, they must still comply with aviation safety regulations. Packaging should account for pressure changes and temperature variations during air travel.

Aluminium export packaging
Aluminium export packaging is more suited to air transport due to its light weight.

Sea transport

Sea transport involves longer transit times, and goods are subjected to various environmental conditions during the journey, such as changes in temperature, humidity, and potential rough handling during loading and unloading. Exposure to moisture is another consideration.

Shipping metal products that may be susceptible to corrosion also necessitates the need for specialist VCI packaging.

As a result, packaging for export via sea needs to be more robust and durable to withstand the extended journey and potential exposure to harsh conditions.

Land transport

Packaging considerations for shipment by road or rail will depend on the specific conditions of the transit route.

Regardless of the method, packaging should be able to handle road or rail vibrations and potential shocks during loading and unloading.

Red lorry driving down a motorway
Export packaging being shipped by road still requires careful planning and adherence to laws and legislation.

Dangerous goods via road, rail, sea and air

Shipment of dangerous goods must follow a different set of procedures and regulations under the selected mode of transportation.

For example, you can only ship lithium batteries in packaging that meets UN3480 requirements.


Considerations for cost-effective shipping

Cutting costs by using sub-standard packaging is a false economy in international trade.

Your choice of export packaging plays a crucial role in ensuring the safe and secure transportation of goods. If your packaging fails in this essential requirement, it can lead to increased costs overall.

Sub-standard or under-specified packaging will likely result in damage during transit and, in turn, the associated costs of returns and replacements.

Secondary costs

It is also vital to consider the secondary costs of your packaging.

For example, purchasing “off the shelf” sizes may be cheaper than custom export packaging in the specific size you require.

However, custom packaging typically weighs less, takes up less space in transit, and eliminates the need for excessive void fill (and paying to ship empty space). All of these factors can increase the overall cost of your shipment.


Whilst it is not always applicable, returnable packaging can cost less than single-trip packaging (even with considerably higher upfront costs) if you have a return route in place.

Returnable export packaging – frequently used in automotive supply chains – provides considerably lower costs per trip than expendable packaging over its usable lifespan.

Returnable packaging
Returnable packaging options such as Correx®totes and Rapitainer can provide long term cost and environmental benefits.

Waste legislation

How does your export packaging impact the environment?

Businesses increasingly recognise and consider the environmental impact of their export packaging, alongside adherence to specific legislation.

Many countries have implemented waste regulations that prioritise packaging materials that are easily recyclable or have minimal environmental impact when disposed of.

A growing awareness of the environmental challenges of packaging waste is driving this change and resulting in an increasing commitment to sustainable practices.

Export packaging
Export packaging must adhere to applicable waste and environmental regulations.

International compliance

Businesses engaged in international trade must be aware of and compliant with their target export markets’ waste regulations and packaging standards.

Non-compliance can lead to legal implications, fines, and damage to a company’s reputation.

Timber packaging requirements

Wooden export packaging

Wooden packaging and pallets have gained widespread adoption in the shipping industry because they balance cost, availability, efficiency, and effective cargo protection.

Wooden shipping crates provide reliable performance that shields goods from external elements and potential mishandling during various stages of transportation.

Pallets, on the other hand, play a significant role in the efficient handling and storage of goods. They facilitate easy loading and unloading processes, allowing forklifts and pallet jacks to move and stack goods precisely.


However, there are specific requirements you must adhere to if using wooden export packaging.

For example, international regulations and standards governing wood packaging are in place to mitigate the spread of forest pests and timber diseases across borders.

ISPM 15 is a regulation essential for safeguarding global ecosystems and preventing the introduction of harmful organisms to new environments. Compliance with these standards is crucial for businesses engaged in international trade.

Non-compliance with ISPM 15 can result in a loss of the entire shipment.

ISPM 15 wheat mark
It is important for ISPM 15 packaging to carry the appropriate labelling (the "wheat" mark).

Export packing list

Have you met compliance requirements?

A packing list is an essential document in the export process, which exporters, packing personnel, freight forwarding companies, and other stakeholders utilise. It plays a crucial role in monitoring the shipment’s journey from origin to destination.

This export packing document provides a detailed inventory of all items included in the shipment. Throughout the transportation process, concerned parties refer to it to verify the accuracy of weights, dimensions, and other pertinent details.

Providing a comprehensive export packing list is crucial in ensuring your goods arrive safely, and to agreed timescales.

Stacked shipping crates with packing list displayed
Stacked shipping crates with packing list clearly displayed.


Choosing an export packaging supplier

Sourcing suitable export packaging can be challenging even for established businesses. Working with a suitable packaging supplier is of the utmost importance.

At GWP, we can offer your business the benefit of our 30 years of experience supplying a range of export packaging. We can ensure your export packaging adheres to ISPM 15, uses sustainable materials (including FSC certification), and – crucially – protects your goods throughout the supply chain.

We also offer one of the widest ranges of packaging solutions from a single supplier. This broad range also means you can rely on genuinely impartial advice regarding the most suitable expert packaging for your specific application.

So, if you would like further information and advice on sourcing export packaging, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Further reading

About the author

Richard Coombes

Richard Coombes

General Manager | GWP Protective

Having originally joined GWP Protective back in 2004, working on the factory floor, Richard now heads up the business as General Manager.
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