You might think that product packaging would have matured into a simple, sustainable activity -- nearly a science -- by now. After all, we've had plastic shrink-wrap and polystyrene cases since the end of World War I. Surely, everyone has packing figured out by now, right?

Wrong. Wrapping and shipping our consumer bait is still an amazingly inefficient process. Companies still have lots of opportunities left to differentiate themselves in this area by ironing out problems, cutting costs, and better serving their customers.

Waste not, want not
If you browse around the Internet, you'll find hundreds of stories from disgruntled customers about wasteful packaging. One blogger talks about an IBM (NYSE: IBM) subsidiary shipping two lightweight and nearly indestructible trackpoint nubs in a cardboard box worthy of a $13 shipping charge. Another customer says that Dell (Nasdaq: DELL) insisted on shipping product CDs that he didn't even want in individual 10-by-10-by-13-inch boxes, every time his company bought a Dell system. He's collected more than 100 boxes.

When that blog post hit the Web, Dell responded quickly and promised to "have this fixed in the next six months." The willingness to fix what's broken speaks in the company's favor, but needing six months to implement such a seemingly simple packaging update is rather depressing. After all, this is a company that's built on direct-to-customer efficiency and that prides itself on its green image. Furthermore, Dell is in a full cost-cutting and efficiency mode, so you'd think that management would have looked at controlling this sort of thing on its own.

I'll bet that FedEx (NYSE: FDX) and UPS (NYSE: UPS) love this sort of sloppy shipping. But someone -- either the sender or the receiver -- is picking up the tab. And I don't know exactly how the carbon footprint of a medium cardboard box on a UPS truck compares with that of a simple paper envelope in the regular first-class mail system, but it can't be the most efficient way to ship things.

But wait -- there's more!
Other packaging fumbles involve hard plastic bubble cases that are supposed to deter theft but also are nearly impossible to open after you buy the darn product, or the wasteful double- or triple-packaging of brand-name cereals or music CDs. When Neil Young released Mirrorball back in 1995, the disc came in a simple and attractive cardboard sleeve, but the practice never caught on. Thirteen years later, most CDs still come wrapped in a bundle of glossy print, polystyrene, and PVC.

That's just another reason to love digital music downloads -- they're better for the environment. Downloads, of course, come in their own kind of insane wrapping, which says something about how highly the record companies value their consumers. But that's another show.

What to do
So the next time you're wrestling with unnecessary bags inside an entirely unreasonable box, sent from a company you're invested in -- send a line to the investor-relations hotline or the consumer-complaints inbox. You might make a difference if the company hadn't thought of the problem yet, and you might want to rethink your investment if your query is met with cold, hard silence or an uninterested response.

If the company doesn't care enough to tighten up operations, it won't miss your investment dollars, either.

Further Foolishness:

Dell is both a Motley Fool Inside Value pick and a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation; FedEx also gets a Stock Advisor nod, and UPS is an Income Investor choice.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. You can check out Anders' holdings if you like. Foolish disclosure is on the road to never, where life's a joy for girls and boys and only will get better.