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How to Make eCommerce Sustainable
How to Make eCommerce Sustainable
Brian Perry
by Brian Perry

For many, contemporary eCommerce seems to be inherently unsustainable, given the environmental downsides of shipping ever more packages to locations all over the world. Between the existential threat of climate change and an increasing demand among consumers and workers for socially conscious businesses, a growing number of companies are attempting to determine whether more eco-friendly business practices can make a difference at a larger scale.

Out of these concerns rises the sustainable eCommerce movement—an attempt at running a business in a way that conserves the environment, reduces negative environmental impact (in comparison to competitors), or possibly even has a net positive effect on the environment. Often, these “green” businesses have sustainable principles baked into their operations, even when those decisions may have a negative impact on short-term profits or other shareholder-friendly metrics.

While some companies may be making these decisions out of the goodness of their hearts and the hope for a better future, others may simply be tracking an increase in customer demand. Customers are starting to care more about sustainability, especially younger generations.

Consider the following:

  • About 59% of Americans are either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change

  • In 2022, 49% of consumers surveyed said they’ve paid a premium for products branded as sustainable or socially responsible in the last 12 months.

  • Market share of sustainably marketed products grew 5.6 times faster than conventionally-marketed products between 2013 and 2018.

  • Sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar are increasingly becoming cheaper than coal in a growing number of locations

  • Technological advancements are lowering the price of purchasing electric vehicle and maintaining electric fleets

  • Over 370 RE100 companies have made a commitment to go ‘100% renewable’

For any companies looking to boost their sustainable capabilities and reputation here are 8 strategies worth investigating, along with examples of companies that are “walking the talk.”

Review Product Materials

For companies that sell physical goods, the first opportunity to improve sustainability is through the product itself. Is there an opportunity to eliminate single-use plastics in exchange for recyclable or compostable material? Can naturally sustainable materials like bamboo, cork, hemp, or wool be used? Can recycled material be used, such as plastic rescued from oceans?

One of the biggest barriers to manufacturing more sustainable products is the cost of switching to a new material, especially if doing so will make it more difficult to offer your product at a competitive price.  Despite that, consider the long-term costs of not making sustainable improvements—are you at risk of a competitor offering a similar product in a sustainable and cost-competitive way?

Here are a few companies that have found success by embracing eco-friendly manufacturing processes:

  • Allbirds – creates shoes created with natural, sustainable materials such as wool, sugarcane, and cellulose fibers

  • Blueland – creates eco-friendly cleaning products such as soaps and detergents

  • Bite – sells zero-waste toothpaste, floss, deodorant, and other toiletries

  • Yardbird – sells outdoor furniture that is made with recycled ocean plastic that looks like natural wicker

Review Packaging Materials

Another opportunity to reduce waste is by evaluating the packaging used to store, protect, and ship products to customers. The simplest way to improve packaging sustainability is to reduce the amount of plastic included, since only about 9% of plastic ends up getting recycled. If you don’t manufacture your own packaging materials, consider partnering with suppliers that create more eco-friendly alternatives. This may include using sustainable or recycled packing material instead of packing peanuts, styrofoam, or plastic bubble wraps. While cardboard can be recycled (about 5-7 times), there are also other box materials that can be recycled more frequently than cardboard.

Here are some ways that companies are innovating with eco-friendly packing & shipping materials:

  • Ecovative Design – developed a mycelium-based material called Mushroom Packaging, or MycoComposite, that can be grown in less than a week.

  • Boox – creates boxes that can be reused about a dozen times. Once the box is no longer usable, it is broken down into plastic flakes which can be turned into more boxes

  • Rothy’s – uses their recycled shoeboxes as the box for shipping and returns

Review Supply Chain, Distribution, and Shipping Practices

Is there a way to make or sell your product in a way that isn’t as wasteful as your current process or that of your competitors? For example, can you add solar panels to your manufacturing facility, use less water, or find other ways to use clean energy during manufacturing? Can you work with local suppliers and manufacturers to reduce supply chain emissions or partner with eco-friendly shipping companies to eliminate wasteful practices?

Outside of environmental benefits, a lot of money can be saved through supply chain optimization. A key focal point for potential environmental and monetary savings is the “last mile” of the shipping process, or the final stretch from the warehouse to customers’ doorsteps, which is typically high in emissions. Distribution center and warehouse locations can be optimized to be closer to the highest number of potential end consumers. Companies are also testing electric fleets, drones, and other low-emission autonomous vehicles and investigating ways to reduce failed deliveries such as dropping off packages at lockers or providing garage access for delivery teams.

Here are some ways companies have re-thought core business practices to make difference:

  • Subaru – highlights the fact that they are America’s first zero landfill automaker by reusing or recycling all manufacturing waste

  • Imperfect foods – improves delivery efficiency by grouping nearby deliveries of their sustainable produce, with plans to further increase regional sourcing in the future

  • Olive – Partners with more than 100 major retailers (Anthropologie, Paige, Ray-Ban, Ugg, etc.) to consolidate home deliveries in reusable tote bags that are dropped off once a week to reduce the number of “final mile” deliveries

Evaluate Online Shopping Features and Return Policies

What’s worse for the environment than shipping a product? Shipping a product and sending it back, of course! It may be worth considering whether policies and practices can be implemented to reduce the number of returns. Fit issues and incorrect description issues are cited as the top two reasons for returns in a national survey, which means there’s likely concrete ways you can bring down returns on your site.

For example, can better product descriptions, size charts, high-quality images, reviews, live chat, or other eCommerce features increase customer confidence and clarity to avoid purchasing mistakes? Do you use analytics to identify the most returned items in order to stop selling them, deprioritize them, or correct content issues such as incorrect sizing information?

Another option could be incentivizing the purchase of larger cart quantities through bulk or bundled package discounts to attempt to reduce the overall number of deliveries required. Or if a return is needed, are there ways to increase the likelihood that the item can be resold or donated so that it doesn’t end up in a landfill? Some companies are even paying to offset return emissions or adding rewards or discounts in exchange for customers waiving their return options.

Here are some ways companies are making returns more efficient:

  • Happy Returns –  allows customers who order products from partner companies to drop off their returns without packaging to locations near their house, where they can be efficiently consolidated, packed, and shipped in reusable boxes

  • Recurate – creates a full-service resale platform to allow partner companies to resell used or returned items and make the process simple and profitable

  • Amazon – offers credits or rewards for no rush shipping or allows you to set a preferred delivery day each week which increases the likelihood of items getting grouped together in fewer shipments

Consider a Reuse, Repair, or Trade-in Program

In addition to packaging recycling, some companies are taking extra steps to ensure their products can be repaired, reused, or at the very least, disposed of responsibly. It’s worth considering how to make this process easy and beneficial for customers so they are encouraged to participate.

Perhaps in response to the rise of “fast fashion” in retail, consumers have become more socially conscious, especially when purchasing clothing and footwear. This may take form in an overall reduced number of higher quality clothing items purchased, an effort to repair clothes instead of throwing them away, buying second hand/refurbished clothes, or choosing brands based on sustainability and ethical practices.

Here are some companies that have found ways to extend the lifespan of their products:

  • Patagonia – allows trade in and reselling of worn clothes that are expected to still last for a long time (Arc’teryx and Lululemon have followed suit)

  • SodaStream – includes a service to return used Co2 cylinders and only pay for the refill so customers can make their own sparkling water at home

  • Swedish Stockings – allows customers to ship back old stockings which get recycled into their products in exchange for a purchase discounts

  • Loop – was created as a partnership between waste management company TerraCycle and brands such as Clorox, Häagen Dazs and Seventh Generation to use glass, aluminum and stainless-steel packaging that can be returned, cleaned and refilled for subsequent uses

Offset Carbon Footprint

Many companies also have plans to reduce their carbon footprint to zero or eventually become carbon negative. Until these goals are attained, many companies are partnering with other companies to “offset” their carbon footprint. Carbon offsets are a way an individual or company can finance projects or initiatives (such as planting trees or installing solar panels) to reduce greenhouse gasses in an effort to balance the total amount of carbon emitted. See Green-e for a list of certified carbon offset certificate programs and products.

There are also plugin options such as Cloverly or Carbon Checkout which make it easy for companies to add an option for consumers to click to offset the carbon footprint of their purchase for a small fee during the checkout process. Another option is to partner with a company called EcoCart which has a Google Chrome extension that automatically offsets the environmental impact of purchases made when shopping with one of their partners. UPS also offers the option to pay a small fee (which UPS will match) to offset the shipping emissions by supporting carbon-emission offsetting projects.

Here are a few other businesses that have made strides in offsetting their carbon footprints:

  • Thrive Market – has become a carbon neutral and sustainable marketplace through the use of carbon energy certificates, with plans to be carbon negative by 2025.

  • Apple – is promoting the fact that they have been carbon neutral since 2020 with goals to make products with net zero carbon impact by 2030.

  • Chipotle – has been transparent about their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint through the release of an annual climate report.

Support Environmental Causes

Another way to gain the trust of eco-conscious customers is through donations or partnerships with environmentally friendly companies, causes, or initiatives. It can be helpful to tell the customer a story of where their money is going, ideally aligning it with a cause that makes sense with the product sold.

Here are some specific examples of how companies use support for environmental causes to improve their image:

  • Tentree – plants 10 trees for each item a customer purchases, even allowing the customer to pick the location they will be planted and see the amount of carbon that has been offset

  • United by Blue – removes a pound of trash from the environment for each product purchased through organizing community cleanup events and operations

  • Proud Pour – sells sustainably grown wines and ciders and gives back 5% of their top line revenue to 22 environmental nonprofits which support the protection of bees, soil, coral reefs, and other initiatives

Evaluate Web Services and Workplace Policies

Websites and mobile apps use a lot of energy which may not be coming from renewable sources. With that in mind, the more efficient your website or mobile app is at loading relevant content and enabling a completed purchase, the less energy will be expended. It is also worth considering energy sources when looking at the servers or data centers that will be hosting and distributing website data. For example, AWS has a customer carbon footprint tool to show customers the estimated carbon emissions avoided by using AWS instead of an on-premises data center, with plans to power all operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025.

It may also be worth looking at your internal operations as well. The simplest way to reduce your company’s carbon footprint is to reduce the need for employee travel. For example, Avatria offers the option to work from home and only encourages travel to client sites only when necessary or highly beneficial. Avatria also makes working from home a great option though home office stipends to ensure people have the supplies they need to create a productive home office. We also offer charity matching benefits with the opportunity for employees to choose to donate to environmentally friendly charities as desired.

I hope this has given you some ideas on how you can make your business more sustainable, and contribute to a brighter future. Please reach out if you have any questions or if you need help making your website or business more sustainable.

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