This article is a chapter taken from The Sustainable Ecommerce Handbook: The Rise of Ethical Shopping and How to Build a Green & Lean Online Brand. Download the full version here.
The world as we know it changed in the last year or so. Every industry has felt the touch of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ecommerce in particular has experienced a shift that’s nothing short of extraordinary, with many offline businesses finally pushed to make the leap online.
It’s said that the industry has been accelerated by up to five years in terms of concentrated growth. In line with this expansion, and no doubt influenced by the humbling impact of recent world events, our audience has evolved too.
In this chapter, we’ll explore the rise – and increasing prevalence – of sustainable ecommerce, and explore the six steps that you can take to ensure your own brand is keeping pace with the desire for a more sustainable ecommerce sector.
Sustainable ecommerce: Green shoots of opportunity
Sustainable ecommerce has come a long way from bamboo toothbrushes and brown paper mailing bags. Today, the principles of sustainability are forming a core component of the values of some of the world’s biggest brands.
Marketing is increasingly centered around eco-friendly messaging. It seems that every slick new direct-to-consumer brand (D2C) is positioning itself as a social enterprise.
Whether you portray yourself as an “eco brand” or not – it’s time to start thinking seriously about sustainability. Consumer demand is rising and the expectation shifting. This is about more than paying lip service to a “trendy” promotional angle. Sustainable ecommerce is here to stay and, quite honestly, our planet can’t afford for us to be anything other than fully committed.
If you’re going to truly commit to making your ecommerce operation more sustainable, it’s essential that you take a long hard look at the foundations that you’re building upon.
Consumers are increasingly discerning – it’s going to take more than switching out your packaging for recyclable mailers to satisfy their demand for true sustainability.
What’s driving your brand forward? Of course, we all want to make a profit (and if you’re sustaining a workforce reliant on the income you provide, taking your responsibility to run a viable business represents a strong and ethical stance in itself!).
However, is there something more than that getting you out of bed each morning? By coupling your brand to a higher cause, or even a set of clear underpinning values that strive to benefit those beyond your immediate stakeholders, you’ll be following in the footsteps of many major brands.
Think about the broader way that you do business, from sales strategies through to the ecommerce models you adopt.
Promotions that encourage excessive consumption and inevitable waste are increasingly coming under fire, with many brands turning away from the Black Friday hype for ecological and ethical reasons.
When it comes to your stakeholders, are you taking steps to ensure that a wider range of voices and experiences are being represented? Are you tapping into the circular or sharing economy, i.e. thinking about where your products end up once they are done with? Could you prevent them from going straight to landfill?
Takeaway: Do the groundwork first. Define your values. Set clear goals. Eliminate problematic business practices that don’t align with this new direction.
2. Improvements to sourcing
Examine the products powering your business. If you’re going to make a real difference, it’s imperative that the goods you sell are part of the solution and not adding to the problem. There’s a real need to make informed and responsible choices here (whether you sell items positioned as “eco” products or not!).
Additionally, it’s important to strive for supply chain transparency. Customers are increasingly interested (and critical) in the provenance of the products you offer. Be proactive about communicating this story, for example through dedicating information pages on your website or FAQs on product pages.
A product’s story can be a powerful marketing device – bear this in mind as you source your products. Is there a way their production benefits local communities, gives back in some way or supports skilled workers? How can this add to their perceived value?
When addressing your sourcing, it makes sense to invest some time into properly mapping your supply chain to identify areas for potential improvement.
It’s also important to remember that, when it comes to sourcing, small changes are better than nothing. It’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll change suppliers overnight, but any amount of positive progress counts and can be built upon. Look at the ways in which you can at least start to move towards a more ethical supply chain.
Takeaway: Source products you can be proud of, and explore the opportunity to get customers more invested in the origin of your products.
3. Greening up your operations
Sustainability is about more than products and packaging – the very act of running your business carries its own operational impact. What steps could you be taking to reduce this?
Your carbon footprint is a great place to start, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t just generated by the physical tasks you undertake.
Many people overlook the fact that our digital activities also carry a carbon cost. Your website may be an “intangible” asset, but it’s powered by very real data centers, which are a huge drain on our planet’s resources. It’s been estimated data centers could account for 3-13% of global electricity use by 2030. For comparison, the aviation industry is currently responsible for 2% of annual human-generated CO2.
How can you reduce this footprint? It goes beyond offsetting (although, please, do that too!).
Switch to green energy suppliers for your physical properties, and host your ecommerce store on a platform that’s carbon-neutral, such as Shopify. Design less power-hungry stores. Think about the way you communicate digitally. Learn more about uncovering the hidden carbon cost of your ecommerce site as well as email, and adjust your habits accordingly.
Takeaway: Step back from your products, and look at the broader operational impact of your business and the way it runs on a day-to-day basis.
4. Delivering on delivery
Delivery is, of course, an essential element of ecommerce. All the more reason to ensure that you’ve taken all measures possible to improve the impact that your fulfillment process generates.
Arguably, delivery represents the most traditional and “familiar territory” when it comes to sustainable ecommerce. If companies are looking to make quick and highly visible improvements, this is commonly where they will invest their efforts – for example, switching to recycled packaging (with great fanfare). Eco packaging and offset deliveries are still important, but these actions represent the tip of the (rapidly melting) iceberg.
There’s plenty more you can do as an ecommerce business. How about taking steps to reduce your rate of returned orders and therefore minimize an especially frustrating, and arguably needless, addition to the miles your parcels travel?
This isn’t as commonly considered, but by taking steps to actively reduce the likelihood of orders being sent back (by providing better product descriptions and images, customer reviews, AI-powered fitting rooms, and more) you can drastically slash your delivery emissions (and save yourself a good deal of money on processing and postage!).
Takeaway: Delivery can represent a great opportunity for improvement when it comes to immediate visibility—just make sure this isn’t the only thing you do for kudos!
5. Products: Examining the bigger picture
Sourcing is only part of the picture when it comes to picking products with the power to make a difference.
Before you can find a sustainable supplier, you need to decide on the type of products you’re going to offer. The rest of your operation could be squeaky clean, but if you’re selling throwaway, poor-quality items that are likely to rapidly end up in landfills, you’re still adding to the problem.
It’s important to think beyond the buying and selling of your products. Are they built to last, and be mindfully purchased? Beyond their initial purpose, how could they be recycled, resold, reused? How are you communicating and encouraging this?
Many brands are waking up to the potential of their products beyond the initial sale. This is great for your bottom line, as well as the planet. By integrating an app such as Recurate into your store to add a white-labelled resale marketplace, you’re able to benefit from the resale of your goods (especially effective for branded items and those which retain a high value).
Similarly, life-extending product services are increasingly common, especially amongst high-end brands. Far from feeling cheap, the idea of investment in a product intended to be kept and treasured adds prestige. Even Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, Barbour, is in on the act.
Takeaway: Look at the whole lifecycle of your products. When it comes to overconsumption, are they a part of the problem or the solution?
6. Clear communication
The final step on the path to sustainable ecommerce success? Letting everyone (and we really do mean everyone) know about the positive changes that you’ve been making.
This is about more than getting your brand some well-deserved recognition (although let’s face it, you definitely deserve it) but also to help inspire other brands to follow your example and to keep educating your customers to expect more from the ecommerce brands that they choose to shop with.
Transparency is really key here; it’s so important that you’re open and honest in the way that you communicate your actions and the associated intention. As conscious consumerism really takes off, many brands have tried to exploit the beneficial brand boost that can come with a message of sustainability.
Greenwashing – when a company pays lip service to sustainability with a handful of token gestures (likely vastly outweighed by the broader operational impact of the business)—isn’t just unethical, it undermines the efforts of all the brands trying to do better and makes the public ever more cynical.
Sustainability reports are a great method of giving a total overview of your efforts and successes. Don’t be afraid to show something that’s less than perfect – progress and honest count for much more. Some brands have entire websites devoted to their commitment to do better—here’s a great example from Gap.
Takeaway: Sustainability needs to be sustainable in its own right! Businesses should be rewarded for their efforts—so don’t be afraid to talk openly and honestly about your efforts!
Give the people what they want, give the planet what it needs
Hopefully, this chapter has got you fired up and excited for the changes you could make to your business—the improvements they can bring to your reputation and profit margins, as well as the obvious benefits to the planet and the people that call it home.
Sustainable ecommerce is the future—and it absolutely needs to be. With consumers becoming increasingly conscious and demanding of higher, more ethical standards, brands that fail to take this sea change as seriously as they should eventually get left behind.
No business is perfect, and the path towards a more sustainable eCommerce operation is most definitely a journey. If you’d rather not go alone, the MindfulCommerce community offers support, resources, and solidarity from other eCommerce brands trying to make the same positive changes that you’re undertaking.