The internet has changed the world in profound ways and, although it does have a significant environmental impact in its own right, much of its impact is in what it enables (and encourages) us to do offline.
Ecommerce makes it easier than ever to buy “stuff”. Without leaving the sofa we can have the latest gadget, or trainers, or whatever we dream of, delivered to our front door in next to no time. It's so easy to buy things online that it's fair to say that the main environmental impact of ecommerce is its role in oiling the fast-turning wheels of global consumerism.
But maybe it doesn't have to be this way. Perhaps, through thoughtful design, ecommerce could actually help educate people about environmental issues and encourage them to be more mindful in their purchasing decisions.
In this chapter, we’ll explore some of the possible ways that the design, functionality and content of ecommerce websites could help support people to make more eco-friendly choices when shopping online.
Rising to the top
Whatever you're selling online, whether it be food, clothes, electronics, or furniture, you likely offer variants or similar products to give customers more choice.
The way that these products are presented on the website creates a hierarchy – intentional or not – that nudges customers more towards some products than to others. Just like merchandising of physical stores, the positioning and presentation of an online store can have a big impact on what people buy.
Therefore, we have an opportunity to use this same principle not just to maximize the profitability of the store, but to lead users towards the most eco-friendly products available.
Even if the green credentials of a product are not highlighted, the positioning of a product on a website alone can make a meaningful difference.
An ecommerce team could, for example, introduce a policy that only electronic appliances with at least an A+ energy rating are allowed to be featured on the homepage, or that any product highlighted as a “Best Buy” must also be better from environmental criteria.
This approach could be carried through to the product search, where a metric of eco-friendliness could be added as a factor in the search algorithm, giving products tagged as “green” a higher position in the search results.
For example, if a customer searches for “blue jeans”, those made with eco-friendly fibres such as organic cotton could appear higher up in the search listings than equivalent jeans made with conventional fibres, helping to direct the customer's attention to look at these products first and increasing the chance that they purchase a more eco-friendly option.
This prioritization of greener products in search results could be applied in the background without the customer even being aware. Or it could be made visible to the user by highlighting greener options in the search listing, by displaying icons representing environmental credentials next to each search result, or by including these criteria in the search result filters alongside conventional filters such as price and star rating.
Environmental impact could also be added as an option in category filters in ecommerce stores, subtly informing customers that this is one of those criteria that they should be considering when choosing a product.
Fashion retailer ASOS achieves this nicely with its “Responsible” filter. The impact of filters like this could be increased by making them more prominent relative to some other filters on the page, or even by setting the eco-friendly filters to be switched on by default.
These filters might include obvious green criteria like recycled, organic or energy efficiency, or they could be factors that the customer might not even consider to be environmental, such as length of warranty or country of origin.
The point here is that successful retailers know how to lead customers' attention towards certain products over others, and so there's a huge opportunity to use these existing techniques to steer customers towards more eco-friendly choices.
Seeing the green
It's clear that retailers do have some power to quietly nudge their customers towards greener choices without even talking about it too loudly, but this power could be amplified by communicating green credentials of products more clearly.
A study by NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business in 2019 found that sales of products marketed as being sustainable are growing 5.6 times faster than those that are not. It’s clear that customers want more sustainable product offerings, but they often do not have the knowledge or the time to research which products have the lowest impact.
The retailer, therefore, has an opportunity to make it easy for their customers while at the same time helping to educate them. This is a win-win for the customer, for the retailer, and for the environment (so long as it’s used responsibly without greenwashing).
This could be as simple as highlighting greener products with a symbol to make them stand out in the product listings, but the impact will be far greater if the website provides the customer with information about why a particular product is a greener choice. An easy solution to this could be an information panel on the product page or even a tooltip on the product listing with a summary of environmental benefits.
The designer has an opportunity here to make this information grab a user’s attention and communicate key environmental benefits in a way that's inspiring, informative, and easily digestible. This could be a simple and welcome addition to many ecommerce websites.
The next question the customer may ask, however, is whether a product is more or less eco-friendly than other equivalent products. Of course, there's not always a simple answer, but retailers could help the customer by highlighting alternatives using the information that they do have.
For example, for products that report their energy consumption or carbon footprint, the product information could include relative statements such as, "This product uses 20% less energy than average". The website could use such criteria when displaying alternative products so that the customer can quickly see that a lower impact product is available.
In his article, Green by Default, Brian Louis Ramirez suggests that stores could highlight the environmental benefits of used and refurbished products compared to buying new.
This approach could even be used to upsell products. For example, organic products are often more expensive than their non-organic counterparts so the retailer, and the environment, could benefit by recommending organic equivalents when customers view the non-organic versions.
The effectiveness of this message could be amplified by telling the customer why this is worth paying extra for. A simple statement like, "Going organic helps protect wildlife, farmworkers, and your family from harmful chemicals", for instance, will incentivize many people to pay a little extra.
This concept could even be integrated into the shopping cart with a simple “Switch to Organic” button next to relevant products, encouraging customers to make the switch before they checkout. Of course, the same principle doesn’t just apply to organic and could be used for other relevant environmental factors.
There are many opportunities for online retailers to highlight environmental considerations in the user journey, but one of the challenges retailers face is a lack of information from manufacturers, particularly those with less commitment to strong environmental practices.
However, this too presents an opportunity because the retailer can highlight the lack of transparency and make the customer aware that environmental information is not available for a certain product. It might make some customers think twice and switch to products from more transparent manufacturers.
This would in turn also encourage manufacturers to be more transparent on factors such as energy, carbon emissions, recyclability, repairability, and intended lifespan. Retailers are the link between manufacturers and end customers and can therefore support customers in demanding more transparency around issues that matter.
Don't send it back
One of the biggest environmental impacts of many ecommerce businesses is product returns. According to the National Retail Federation, 20-30% of goods sold online are returned, which creates approximately 15 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year in the US alone – the equivalent of three million cars. Also, additional materials are used in packaging and many returned products can’t be resold and end up as waste.
A lot of online retailers offer free returns as a way of lowering the barrier to customers making a purchase. However, the high level of returns also costs retailers a lot more money and harms the environment.
The ecommerce retail experience can help to mitigate this issue through information and tools that help the customer to select the right product and the right size. Basics such as clear photography and product descriptions are the foundation of helping customers select the right product for their needs.
It can be particularly helpful to highlight in the product information any features that a customer might not expect, such as an unusually small or large size of a product or whether the product is compatible for use with common products that the customer might already own or has in their shopping cart.
Likewise, simple illustrated guides, animations, sizing tools, and videos to help customers choose the right product can easily pay for themselves, both financially and environmentally.
There may also be value in communicating the environmental impact of returns to the customer in the shopping process. This could be integrated into the standard returns messaging. For example, instead of just saying, "Free returns for 14 days", the website could say something like, "Free returns for 14 days. Minimise returns to help the environment".
A related opportunity in the shopping cart interface would be to highlight products that are being ordered in multiple variations. It’s increasingly common for customers to purchase the same product in multiple sizes or colors, fully intending to pick their favorite and then send the rest back.
The ecommerce system could spot these multiples in the shopping and prompt the customer with a simple message like, "Did you mean to order multiple sizes? Try our size guide to help you choose the product".
This could potentially be accompanied by a simple environmental message too, prompting the user to think twice while also offering them help to select the perfect product before they place their order.
Sustainable clothing brand TenTree, for example, provides their customers with information that aids their decision for purchasing the correct sizing.
Their product reviews indicate whether other customers thought that the product was true to size. This helps customers select the correct size based on other people’s experiences and potentially eliminates the need to purchase multiple sizes, resulting in fewer returns.
Encouraging responsible use
A significant proportion of the environmental impact of many products happens during their use. Although the behavior of customers in using their products might not be the responsibility of the retailer, the online retailer does have an opportunity to help encourage more responsible use of the products that they sell.
For example, online clothing retailers could provide information about product care, explaining how to look after them to extend their life, and encouraging customers to wash clothes at lower temperatures with eco-friendly detergents.
Perhaps they could even encourage customers to purchase products that help them to care for their products, such as the Guppyfriend Washing Bag, which minimizes wear and tear on clothes during washing while also preventing microplastics from entering the sewage systems, or form affiliate relationships with retailers of eco-friendly care products.
This could be taken further by creating content with tutorials and guides on how to care for products, and how to make repairs. It could even create a commercial opportunity to sell replacement parts or offer a repair service to existing customers.
Online retailers are often the key source of information about the products that they sell and so the creation of responsible product use, care and repair information is an opportunity to become more of an authority on a particular product or brand, add real value for customers and have a positive influence on the environment.
Giving back to nature
Many businesses are looking to carbon offsetting as a way of mitigating environmental impact from their activities. While I have many concerns about carbon offsetting as being a cheap way to alleviate guilt for our ever-increasing consumption, it can have a place in helping to generate funding for valuable environmental protection projects.
The ecommerce process can be used as a tool to facilitate this through offsetting organisations and it needn't be too difficult. Tools such as co2ok and Cloverly can be integrated into a number of popular ecommerce platforms and calculate the quantity of emissions to be offset for each purchase.
These tools can potentially help to educate customers about their carbon footprint when shopping and could be included by default, encouraging greater adoption while still giving the customer the opportunity to opt-out if they want to.
This education piece will be greatly enhanced by providing the customer with a reference point that they relate to, for example, “The lifecycle emissions from this purchase are equivalent to driving 63 miles”.
It certainly is not a panacea but it does offer us one more way for ecommerce stores to raise awareness of environmental issues and generate much-needed funding to support environmental projects.
The environmental impact of ecommerce is not purely digital. The products being sold will nearly always have a far bigger impact than digital technology and, with ecommerce acting as an accelerant to consumption, it’s important that the ecommerce sector tackles this head-on.
There are bigger questions to be asked about the products and business models themselves, but it’s clear that there are many opportunities to encourage more responsible shopping through the design and implementation of the ecommerce experience itself.
Most of these opportunities are simple to action, and some could even help increase revenue for the retailer. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.