Conducting a Sustainability Storytelling Audit on Your Online Store Featured Image

Conducting A Sustainability Storytelling Audit On Your Online Store

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.

With the pandemic forcing everyone home this past year, like most people around the globe, I found myself discovering new brands and shopping entirely online. As a buyer who shops based on the business’ mission, learning more about a company’s sustainability stance is important to my shopping experience. 

I don’t only do this for my personal purchases – I do it for work, too. As a senior manager for social impact at Shopify, I help Shopify’s storytelling and marketing teams feature socially-conscious businesses.

My job is to search through many online stores, reading their sustainability pages and learning more about their products and how they’re making a positive change. And yet, there are so many online businesses out there that hide their sustainability stories deep in their blog pages, or as a footnote on their homepage. 

For customers looking to vote with their dollars and shop from brands that align with their core values, these businesses make it difficult for customers to learn about those values and start shopping. In many cases, if shoppers can’t find the answers they’re looking for quickly and seamlessly, they move on. 

So how can you make sure you’re captivating potential customers the moment they land on your store and start shopping? A sustainability statement on your homepage is a good start, but sharing your impact is more than having a flashy headline. Your impact and brand storytelling needs to be woven into the entire customer journey.

In this chapter, we will go through each element of the customer journey and how to showcase your business’s sustainability story to better highlight your commitments and your impact to date (or how you intend to measure impact). 

Start on the homepage

In a UX study with fashion brand Eileen Fisher, researchers found that “almost one third of surveyed users said they were influenced by the brand’s story.” If that’s the case, one third of customers need to know that brand story in the first scroll on your homepage to be encouraged to continue shopping. 

Depending on your theme, a visible statement of your impact and social mission should live in your revolving hero image or be prominently displayed below your collections section. 

According to David Carr, storefront optimization specialist at Shopify, “when a first-time visitor lands on your store, they should be able to tell if the product range offered suits their needs within 10 seconds of landing.” 

You can apply the same principle to your sustainability statement: when a visitor arrives at your store, they should understand the basics of your company’s values and impact within the first 10 seconds. This way, the shoppers who are looking for value-based businesses can start shopping right away, while visitors that aren’t can understand one of your unique selling points and may choose to continue shopping knowing that your company offers something different. 

So let’s say the customer is intrigued and interested in learning more. They head to your About page to read details about your brand mission and possibly your blog to skim through some compelling stories of your impact.

Telling your sustainability story 

These pages usually appear in your navigation as “About Us”, “Our Story”, or even “Sustainability”. This is where you can dive into the details of your company’s impact beyond the short description on your homepage. 

Transparency is key when communicating your sustainability efforts on these pages because customers are becoming more critical, especially when shopping with socially-conscious brands. Vague statements about “being ethical” or “sourcing sustainably” are no longer good enough to convert socially-minded buyers. 

In the same Eileen Fisher study mentioned in the previous section, the researcher notes that “more than half the surveyed users said that knowing where their clothes are from influences their purchasing decisions.” 

This is where the details are important. If your products are manufactured locally, in a factory that provides fair and equal pay, or with a manufacturer that employs underserved communities, share this! Include stories, images, and impact measurement numbers, such as total emissions or number of people paid fair wages, to increase brand transparency and, in turn, customer trust.

Not sure where to start? Try this exercise: 

Get a pen and paper and write down everything your business does that has a positive impact on people and the planet. When carrying out a sustainability storytelling audit with a jewelry brand called Biko in Toronto, I started the conversation by asking the founder about her sustainability journey. Corrine Anestopoulos had a lot to share, from using recycled metals and jewels in her pieces to giving back to various causes. 

Just by sharing this story, together we were able to come up with a Sustainability Page that shared her sustainability journey in a crisp and succinct way. The result is a snapshot of all the efforts at Biko, a highlight of their values and mission, and short descriptions of their sustainability efforts.  

Formatting these pages is also important. David Carr says, “customers rarely read websites word by word. Instead, they scan the page, picking out the information that is relevant to them. For this reason, it’s very important that your description is properly formatted to make it easy to read and scannable.” 

In fact, according to UX researchers Nielsen Norman group, the average visitor reads just 28% of the words on a site. With this in mind, David also recommends making sure the keywords are bolded and highlighted to stand out. Adding inappropriate page breaks and pictures will also help scanners digest the content quickly and pull out the information they’re looking for.

Your About page is a chance to present a snapshot of all your sustainability efforts, but some of your followers may want to dive deeper and learn more about your processes and projects. To further share your story and educate your customers on how you think about sustainability, you can create additional content – perhaps by explaining your choice of materials, manufacturing processes, and business operations. 

An example of a well-known company that spearheads sustainability and regularly publishes educational content about its carbon footprint is Allbirds. The internationally popular shoe brand has a thorough sustainability section that teaches interested customers about their work in regenerative agriculture, reversing climate change, and overall business operations. 

Allbirds break down the materials they use in their products, how they’re sourced, and why you should care. Fun images and graphics accompany the science talk to make it digestible and an easy read for customers looking to learn more.  

Allbirds’ Sustainability Menu Navigation Screenshot
Allbirds’ Sustainability menu navigation enables customers to explore the company’s various initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and draws attention to its eco-friendly materials.

Educating customers is particularly important if your products have specific end-of-life instructions consumers need to follow (see below), or if you need to help them understand why making a sustainable choice is better than the fast and easy alternative. 

Buying toilet paper is mundane, for example, so most of us want this purchase to be easy and painless. At Reel, they had to convince potential customers to switch from their conventional toilet paper to their sustainable bamboo toilet paper that is more expensive than the average roll and takes longer to arrive. 

Their website is simple and makes learning about their initiatives seamless. Potential customers can explore the value of using bamboo toilet paper over the traditional tree and pulp-based products. Bamboo grows quickly, uses less water, and the paper is softer for your tushy. 

Once the customer is intrigued, they educate them on the subscription model so they no longer have to worry about being without environmentally-friendly paper or have to run to the store to pick up the traditional paper once they run out. This allows their customers to make better choices, easily.   

Reel Screenshot
Sustainability-centered toilet paper company Reel has a separate page that explains why it favors bamboo over trees.

Selling your products

Your product pages are another opportunity to showcase your impact with more granularity based on each specific product. It personalizes the experience, allowing the customer to feel like they are part of your sustainability journey and that, by their singular purchase of a product, they are making a specific impact. 

Learning the story behind the product also reinforces its value to customers. In Eileen Fisher’s study, interview respondents said that knowing the product and brand’s story meant they were able to justify the higher price and were willing to pay for the product. 

Here are a few ways you can share the footprint of a specific product: 

Include the impact directly in your product description 

This option is the easiest. Simply describe the product’s impact right in the product description. Make sure to highlight keywords, so it doesn’t get lost. An alternative way to emphasize the impact is by enabling an accordion for your product description and adding a dedicated section called “Impact”. This way, it has its own tab and doesn’t get lost in the rest of your descriptions.

Create a product image describing the impact 

Consider including a graphic or photos in your product image carousel to drive home the impact of the product. Visuals are powerful and have an immense effect on the human brain. Sharing your impact on the product page through visuals and easy-to-read infographics will help your story resonate with your customer and show them the positive influence they will have by purchasing your product.

Include an end-of-life description

Designing for sustainability and circularity is only effective if you equip your customers with the information they need to ensure your product is disposed of correctly at the end of its lifecycle or use. Your product page is another great location to share this information, especially if you have multiple products with varying end-of-life requirements.

 A business doing this well is Meow Meow Tweet. If you look at each beauty product page, they give detailed instructions on how to recycle or return some of their packagings. 

Skincare brand Meow Meow features Screenshot
Skincare brand Meow Meow Tweet features information on every product page that explains how customers can recycle or return the individual parts of the packaging.

Another great example is Rothy’s, a popular footwear company in the United States that turns recycled plastic into shoes, which makes them machine washable. Washing instructions are included directly on the product pages, so new customers can see just how easy it is to wash and continue using their shoes.

Existing customers can also search for the shoes they purchased to pull up the instructions should they need a reminder. By making these instructions easy to access, brands empower their customers to extend the product’s life. 

Rothy’s Features Screenshot
Direct-to-consumer footwear brand Rothy’s features washing instructions on their product pages.

Remember, once the product leaves your warehouse, the disposal, repair, or resale is in the hands of your customer. If they are not given easy access to end-of-life information, it’s very likely the product and packaging will end up in a landfill. 

Use a partner to help measure and display

There are agencies that can help you research your product’s impact and display these insights directly on your product pages. Case studies suggest that these product insights have substantially increased online conversion rates.

You’ll need to do your own research on how each company calculates the impact of a product reliably, but one example of a partner in Shopify’s ecosystem that is worth exploring is Green Story. The consumer engagement platform for responsible businesses publishes case studies where merchants sharing their products’ impact saw “+107% increase in online conversion rates” and “+251% increase in repeat sales”

Help reduce returns

Ecommerce is inherently carbon-intensive since everything needs to be shipped to the customer. And while we can’t stop shipping, businesses should do their best to reduce returns. 

According to Common Objective, “in the US alone, five billion pounds of landfill waste is created by returns, contributing 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, equivalent to what three million cars would emit in one year.” 

By providing your customers with detailed information on your products, they are able to fully understand what they will receive in the mail, and if it’s the right color or size. Here are some things to consider on your product pages to reduce returns:

  1. Detailed product images: In addition to a hero product image and beautiful lifestyle shots, include details your customers want to see. The texture, how it fits on different body shapes, or size comparisons are all very helpful for customers trying to make a purchase decision based on 2D-images.
  2. Try-on or sizing app: If you are a fashion or apparel brand, consider integrating a try-on app for your customers. Eyewear brand Genusee uses a try-on feature called Ditto so you can see what a pair of glasses will look like on your face before you buy. You can also check out the Shopify App Store for other options.
  3. Provide live consultations: Luxury and sustainable lingerie brand Mayana Geneviere offers live consults with a member of their team to help women determine the best fit for their body. Since launching their live consults, Mayana Genvieve has managed to reduce their returns to zero for the women who book with them.

Start your audit!

Time and time again, I’ve seen incredible, sustainable brands miss huge opportunities by not communicating their impact story across their online store. Some don’t include it at all! 

While some companies might be telling these meaningful stories on their social accounts, it’s important not to neglect your online store. Sharing your impact directly throughout your website has been shown to increase conversion rates, customer loyalty, and positive brand affiliation.

Take time to document your sustainability story and every aspect of the goodwill your company generates, be it environmental, social, or within your own employee base. Use these details to craft statements on your homepage, a dedicated sustainability page, and product-centric details and numbers to personalize the shopping experience for your customers. 

As more customers shift their buying behavior towards values-based businesses that make a positive impact on the world, it’s more important than ever to make sure your sustainability story is visible throughout your website to make your brand stand out. You work hard to make a positive difference in the world, so be proud of that and share it! 

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