As many aspects of life become more convenient, we also use up more of the planet’s resources. In the last few years, shoppers have started to become increasingly conscious of the effects of consumerism on the environment.
Standard ecommerce practices like single-use plastic and fast shipping may be easy, but they’re also depleting resources quickly.
Many retailers involved in both digital commerce and ecommerce are trying to combat this by using sustainable methods of creating and shipping their products. Sustainability has a number of benefits for companies, their customers, and the environment.
If you’re an ecommerce entrepreneur, it’s important to understand what sustainability is, why it matters, and what you can do to make your company more eco-friendly.
What is sustainability?
The term “sustainability” has become a common topic of conversation in recent years. Both consumers and business owners are concerned about sustainable practices. However, the first step toward accomplishing sustainability is comprehending what it really means.
Sustainability is the practice of maintaining a balance so as not to deplete resources and harm the environment. If we use everything available to meet our needs now, future generations won’t have the resources they need to maintain this quality of life.
By practicing sustainability and making an effort to “go green,” we ensure that the systems we use for creating and consuming products can last indefinitely.
Experts have created a few different models to explain and represent sustainability. One helpful concept is the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social.
The environmental aspect of sustainability has gotten the most attention recently as businesses aim to reduce their carbon footprints and decrease waste.
However, companies also have to focus on their economic stability and social impact. This involves making sure that their business benefits their employees and community instead of harming them.
Rise in demand for sustainable ecommerce
Online stores have seen a dramatic rise in popularity in the last decade. Today, there are various types of ecommerce available all around the world.
It’s impossible to beat the convenience of ecommerce, so more and more people are turning to the internet to do their shopping. They’re no longer limited to the stores in their immediate area, and they can shop at any time for virtually any item.
Although ecommerce’s importance has grown for entrepreneurs and consumers alike, it’s also had a big impact on the environment. Sending items across the country leads to an increase in carbon emissions, and the packaging materials often end up in a landfill.
Shoppers are becoming more environmentally conscious, and many are concerned about the environmental impact of the ecommerce industry. These consumers may not want to shop from a company that uses harmful manufacturing, packaging, or shipping practices.
There are ways to run an ecommerce business sustainably, though. The brands that embrace sustainable actions often develop a loyal following.
Sustainable ecommerce may have started as a small niche that appealed to a specific demographic, but this is no longer the case.
Environmental sustainability is now a mainstream value. It may not be the only concern for most shoppers, but sustainability does make a business look much more favorable to the general public.
Surveys show that most consumers are trying to change their consumption habits to reduce their carbon footprints and protect the environment. If an ecommerce business can help shoppers accomplish this, they’re likely to choose that store over a competitor.
Reasons to increase sustainability in your ecommerce business
Transitioning to a more environmentally sustainable business model requires time, effort, and research. It may also be a financial investment.
However, the benefits of promoting sustainability are worth it. Here are several reasons you should consider increasing your ecommerce store’s sustainability.
It’ll likely be mandatory in the future
Most sustainable business practices are optional today, but they won’t always be. As environmental concerns grow, we should expect to see an increase in government regulations covering ecommerce.
You shouldn’t wait until the government steps in to start changing your practices. They may impose a short and strict deadline for reaching certain targets. It’ll be far easier for your business to gradually transition instead.
It can help reduce costs
In some ways, a sustainable ecommerce model can cost more money. You may pay more for the materials you use to manufacture your products, or you may spend more on recyclable packaging.
Sustainable ecommerce can save on costs in other ways, though. You may therefore end up financially ahead of where you’d be had you stayed with your traditional practices.
Finding the perfect balance for packaging materials is key when trying to reduce your costs. Adding too much material can drain your resources and increase your shipping costs, but using too little will result in damage to your items during delivery.
To optimize the costs to ship orders, you can find the middle ground that benefits both your business and the customer.
It boosts your brand image
Making the move toward sustainability shows your customers your values and can increase brand loyalty. Shoppers care more about sustainability now than ever, and many use it as a determining factor when choosing a store.
Consumers like businesses that have a clear and consistent brand image. They want to feel a personal connection to the small businesses they shop from. When you’re open about your company’s values, shoppers will feel like they understand your store and what it stands for.
Sustainable practices can attract new visitors and boost loyalty among your existing customers. Returning customers spend more on average than first-time customers, and they're more likely to promote your store with word-of-mouth recommendations or social media posts.
Having strong values in regards to environmentalism can help you develop a loyal customer base. This in turn is one of the best ways for your company to succeed.
How to make your online store more sustainable
There are plenty of ways to make your ecommerce business more sustainable. You don’t have to completely overhaul your system overnight to make a difference.
Start with a few small changes, and let your environmentally friendly practices grow over time. To get you started, here are several great ways for your store to promote sustainability!
1. Update your business philosophy to show support for sustainability
Your business philosophy is an explanation of your brand’s values and the ways in which you uphold those values.
A strong philosophy is essential for connecting with your customers and creating a strong brand image. Once you’ve committed to making some sustainable changes, update your written philosophy to reflect that choice.
Your philosophy should be stated on the “About” page of your website. It could be a part of your mission statement or a separate section of the page. You can also include your philosophy on your social media channels.
In your updated statement, explain that your business understands the seriousness of environmental sustainability and the common concerns about ecommerce’s effect on the environment. Then, give specific examples of how your store is making efforts to follow a sustainable model.
It’s a good idea to update your philosophy after you’ve made at least one or two positive changes regarding sustainability. Your customers may not be impressed if you say that you’re becoming more sustainable but haven’t yet done anything to back it up.
2. Offer sustainable shipping
Shipping is a step in the online shopping process with one of the biggest environmental impacts. The effects of this on the environment are made worse by the fact that fast shipping has become an expectation for many shoppers.
Expedited shipping can greatly increase a store’s carbon footprint because planes, vans, and other carriers need to take more frequent trips.
Although shipping management is one of the essential functions of electronic commerce for successful online stores, it’s difficult to reduce your environmental impact during transportation.
The order has to travel from you to the customer. Once it’s in the hands of USPS, UPS, FedEx, or another shipping provider, you don’t have much control over the process anymore.
Opting for a lengthier shipping time might help, but it also may turn customers away.
Fortunately, there are several other ways you can reduce the environmental effects of how you ship your orders. Focus on the elements that are still within your control.
For example, you could use recyclable packaging or invest in a thermal printer for labels, which reduces ink usage.
I recommend trying to cut down on returns, too. When customers send back items, it doubles the effects of shipping.
A flexible return policy is helpful for convincing first-time customers to try your store, so you shouldn’t get rid of it entirely. Instead, reduce returns by being very clear with your product descriptions, including dimensions and sizing information.
3. Avoid excess packaging
Plastic packaging waste is a major concern for ecommerce retailers. Not only do you need the typical packaging to house the item itself, but you also need a box for shipping and materials to keep the item secure inside the box.
Even one small item purchased in an ecommerce store can lead to a significant amount of plastic waste.
To cut down on packaging, start from the outermost part of the package and work your way in. Use the smallest box that still can keep the item safe. This reduces cardboard usage and cuts back on the internal packaging materials you need.
Then, consider how you package the item. Is it necessary for it to be housed in a plastic case? Is it possible to package the item in biodegradable materials?
The safety of the product should be your top priority, but there are plenty of eco-friendly packaging materials on the market today that are sturdy and reliable.
4. Begin a recycling plan
When it comes to packaging, reducing your materials is the best way to achieve sustainability. Recycling is a great way to handle the remaining materials that are necessary for delivering products to customers, though.
Most consumers have access to recycling, and recycling programs are becoming more popular throughout the world. If you use recyclable cardboard boxes to ship your items, you can greatly cut down on your store's waste production.
You can also use other recyclable materials. For example, you could switch to recyclable shredded paper to secure your item in the box instead of Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. Some ecommerce businesses have managed to switch to 100% recyclable packaging.
If you start a recycling program, remember to inform your shoppers. Your existing customers may be used to throwing away your packaging, and they may not notice the change in materials.
Recyclable packaging can be a selling point for new customers, too, so it’s worth advertising. Announce your recycling plan proudly to attract customers and to ensure that your shoppers follow through with recycling.
5. Create a donation program
Donations may not impact your store's carbon footprint, but they’re a great way for your business to make a difference in the world. Your donations could support environmental causes, or they could contribute to the social pillar of sustainability.
Remember that sustainability isn’t just about the environment. For your business to have a healthy and long-standing relationship with the world, it should support communities as well.
Your business could make donations in a few different ways. One option is to make recurring monetary donations to a cause that aligns with your brand’s values. You could donate a flat amount every month, or you could donate a percentage of your sales.
Another option is to donate your products to those in need. For example, the TOMS shoe brand made a name for itself by donating a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair that was sold.
Most importantly, make sure that your method of giving is truly impactful. If you decide to work with a charity, research them thoroughly beforehand. You should know exactly where your contributions are going and how they're making a difference.
In addition, be careful with how you publicize your donations. Let your customers know about your charitable contributions, as it’s a good way to display your brand's values. Your shoppers will be happy to know that some of their money spent is going to a good cause.
However, avoid over-marketing your donations. If you put too much emphasis on your brand’s contributions, customers may think your actions are insincere or exploitative of those in need.
6. Perform an energy audit
Shipping shouldn’t be your only concern when increasing your sustainability. You may be able to reduce your carbon footprint within your own office or warehouse. Simple changes to your energy usage during production can make a big difference over time.
To find ways to cut down on your energy usage, perform an energy audit. First, gather up all of your energy bills from the last two or three years. Look for patterns in your energy consumption, and keep an eye out for spikes that don’t make sense.
If your business gets more shoppers in the summer, for instance, you may expect an increase in energy usage as you work harder to fulfill these orders. However, if there’s no explanation for an increase in your energy bill, your office may be needlessly consuming energy.
All workplaces function differently, so you’ll have to examine your individual company’s energy usage to find places to cut back.
For instance, maybe you can turn off or unplug equipment at night. Perhaps you can invest in LED light bulbs or other low-energy lighting sources. Sometimes simply adjusting the thermostat by a few degrees can reduce your energy usage.
7. Feature products that boost sustainability
You don’t just have to promote sustainability in how you conduct your business. Your products themselves can also promote sustainability.
This is an easier feat for some businesses than others, and your options may be limited by your niche. Many consumers are interested in buying products that help them live sustainably, though.
For example, your store could offer an environmentally friendly alternative to a popular item in your industry made from recycled materials.
Keep in mind that sustainable lifestyle products tend to be one-time purchases. The goal of sustainability is to reduce consumption of resources, so if your customers are interested in a sustainable product, they’ll want it to last a long time.
With your sustainable products, focus on quality over quantity. Many shoppers won’t mind spending more on goods that are good for the environment and high quality.
8. Partner with local sustainability organizations
Most communities have at least one environmental organization that aims to promote sustainability within the community. Your local organization will probably be more than happy to collaborate with you on your sustainability efforts.
These groups are an excellent resource for tips on improving your sustainable practices. Their members are knowledgeable about the environmental concerns affecting your community, and they know how to advocate for effective changes.
Take their advice seriously if they give you input on how to make your business more sustainable.
With the organization’s permission, write about your collaboration on your website or social media profiles. You could include your work with the group on your “About” page, or you could write a blog post about how you and the organization have teamed up.
This informs your customers about the actionable steps you’re taking toward sustainability, and it also can bring publicity to the community group.
9. Display your environmental certifications
Certifications help your brand establish authority and credibility. Any store can say that they’re making efforts to become environmentally friendly, but certifications show that an unbiased party has confirmed your sustainability.
There are a wide variety of certifications available from different organizations and for different industries. Look into certifications for sustainably sourced materials or environmentally friendly shipping.
If you don’t meet the qualifications for any certifications yet, use them as a guideline for steps you can take to improve your procedures.
The time to go green is now!
As concerns about environmental issues grow, I suggest that you view sustainability as part of the foundation of your business. Sustainability is no longer a niche idea.
Today, businesses that practice sustainability generally have more loyal customers and are regarded more positively than businesses that show no interest in the environment.
Sustainable ecommerce is the future of the industry, and your online business can thrive if it keeps up with environmentally friendly methods of manufacturing and shipping. Don’t panic if you’re not entirely sustainable yet, though.
Shoppers like to see brands that are making an effort. Even a few small steps toward sustainability can benefit the environment and improve your brand image!