Apply these smart and strategic tips to make your business more environmentally-friendly
This year is a great year to be in the ecommerce business. With many people still working remotely or under stay-at-home orders, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online shopping across the world.
Euromonitor reports that goods bought online in 2020 globally grew by a whopping 24%. In 2021, Euromonitor estimates 17% of goods will be bought online – nearly double the amount of ecommerce sales that were happening just five years ago.
While all of this is welcome news for businesses who’ve set up shop online, it’s not so great news for our environment. This is because as the popularity of ecommerce grows, so do some of the negative impacts that come with it.
An uptake in online shopping globally puts a strain on our natural resources, like creating excess packaging waste that heads for landfill. According to a study published on Our World in Data, plastic packaging is the biggest contributor to plastic waste, equalling more than half of the global total.
Ecommerce businesses have a responsibility to make more strategic, sustainable decisions that benefit people and the planet as a whole. It also makes good business sense, as consumers expect brands to exercise responsibility when it comes to the resources they’re using. NYU Stern School of Business’ Research has found that 50% of the sales growth in consumer-packaged goods from 2013 to 2018 came from products marketed as sustainable.
What does ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-friendly’ mean, exactly?
Sustainability is a broad and subjective term in business used to describe a multitude of things. However, one way to define sustainability is systems that are healthy, productive and resilient in the long-term.
When it comes to ecommerce, it means creating an online business that’s built to last to ensure our planet, our people and your company’s long-term wellbeing. While online businesses have a role to play when it comes to protecting our collective future, sometimes it can be hard to know where to get started. Unsure where to begin? Here are five tips on how to be a more eco-friendly ecommerce brand.
1. Reduce your packaging and make a switch to sustainable materials
One of the ways that ecommerce can be most wasteful is through packaging. Innovations in the packaging industry such as low minimum order quantities (MOQs) mean that any business, big or small, now has access to affordable and sustainable options. However, brands often opt into packaging that’s the status quo, like cellophane, bubble wrap and regular plastic mailer bags.
These products are made from single-use materials that head straight for landfill and can take hundreds of years to decompose. Fortunately, there are more sustainable alternatives out there to protect your products – all you have to do is seek them out.
Start by doing a packaging audit to ensure you’re not including any layers that are unnecessary and could be eliminated, and look for items that can be switched out for a greener alternative. Packaging made of recycled, compostable or reusable materials all have their own unique value when it comes to sustainability. Compostable materials, for example, have no value if they’re not disposed of correctly, so there is an education piece needed for ecommerce brands who choose to use it with their customers.
When it comes to commonly used packaging items, recyclable tissue paper is a great substitute for wrapping paper or for cushioning and padding products instead of bubble wrap, while compostable or recycled mailers are a better option than regular plastic mailers.
2. Make your shipping practices greener
While near-immediate shipping speeds have become common practice for ecommerce brands, they also take a toll on the environment. Same-day or 24-hour delivery of packages that arrive by truck, cargo plane or another form of freight transport all produce a high amount of greenhouse gasses, which contributes to climate change. Giving customers the option to choose a slower form of delivery for the environment means fewer trucks on the road and cuts down on them being fully packed with deliveries.
According to research by Josue Velazquez, a Scientist at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, customers who wait up until five days for home delivery could help decrease carbon dioxide emissions by about 30% in the last mile of delivery.
Because people are so accustomed to speedy shipping, they may need incentive to be willing to wait. It’s a good idea to offer a promotion for free or discounted slow shipping where possible. Another way to fine-tune your sustainable shipping processes is to make sure product descriptions and sizing information is as clear and detailed as possible on your website to help reduce product returns.
3. Have a carbon offsetting or social or environmental donation option at the checkout
Giving customers the opportunity to opt into doing some social or environmental good helps make them more aware of the impact of their actions. For example, shoppers may not realize the carbon created from shipping a product, so you can educate them on this at the checkout and ask them if they’d like to make a donation to make their purchase ‘carbon zero.’
This way of doing it empowers the customer to make the decision themselves, while also being a highly convenient way for them to make a small difference in the world. One study found that around 71 percent of customers will round up donate to charitable causes at the checkout, with donations ranging from $2 to $5. It will be an even more appealing prospect if you offer to match each donation as a business!
At noissue, we incentivize customers by planting a tree for every order an Eco-Alliance customer makes and emailing them annual progress updates on that tree’s growth. This initiative helps show our company values in action, while also helping increasing customer engagement.
4. Think about product end of life
If you’re building an online business that’s built to last, one aspect you have to factor in is the end-of-life for your products. This means reviewing what the long-term consequences of them wearing, tearing or breaking will be.
Research the life cycle your products currently have and explore how you can prolong their life spans in terms of quality, offer repairs for products that do happen to break or keep older versions in circulation in a different form.
An example of this is outdoor clothing brand Patagonia has an initiative called WornWear where customers can send in older clothing to be recycled into new clothing, and receive credit towards buying a new item. This is a win for its processes, and a win for the customer.
At noissue, we use a recycling framework which means we incorporate pre-used materials (like plastic or paper) into our Recycled Mailer Bags or Tissue Paper. This keeps materials in circulation, rather than introducing virgin materials into the world.
noissue Recycled Mailer
Product end-of-life is an often neglected part of sustainability and a hard process to get completely right, but it pays to be thinking about it and working towards longer-term goals as a brand.
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5. Integrate sustainability into your brand purpose and ethos
When it comes down to it, sustainability isn’t a siloed area of business. All of the above advice isn’t nearly as impactful as when you view sustainability as something holistic, across your entire business, and built into your brand purpose.
Thinking about how your ecommerce business can be impact-driven from conception provides your brand with a compass to point you in the right direction when it comes to growth. It also helps shape every business decision you make to be a conscious and strategic one, from the products you choose to sell to the way you communicate with your community.
Sun & Swell Foods is a notable example of a brand who has put great effort into building a sustainable ecommerce business. A plastic-free health foods brand, 75% of Sun & Swell’s product offering utilizes compostable packaging, and they offer a packaging send-pack program for customers who might not have access to composting. They also offer carbon neutral shipping, and utilize compostable boxes sealed with branded compostable tape. With every sustainable step they take, they deliver on their brand’s mission to be better for both people and the planet!
We hope these ideas for becoming a more eco-friendly ecommerce business have helped you! Remember that sustainability is a lens that you should use to overlook all of your business processes, rather than something you tick off once and then forget about.
Get started with the tips we’ve shared above, and then continue to progress on your sustainability journey. It doesn’t matter where you start – just start somewhere! A small change can make a world of difference.
About the author: Elly Strang is digital editor at noissue, a sustainable packaging company that lets you design your own eco-friendly customized tissue paper, mailers, stickers, tape, and more. Find out more about noissue.