Once upon a time, sustainability in e-commerce involved little more than slapping a recycled label on your products.
Today, the definition of what truly qualifies as an ethical e-commerce brand looks starkly different.
“It’s not enough to say you are sustainable or to just offset purchases,” says Freyja Wedderkop, Marketing Assistant at We Make Websites in a recent article for Shopify. “Customers want to see every step of the supply chain: Where products are made, who makes them, and how they’re delivered right through to how returns are handled.”
Today’s consumers want — strike that — they demand transparency.
Yet, despite the mountains of data, many online retailers are still dragging their feet when it comes to making their brands more sustainable.
The good news is, the brands that take action today to improve their business ethics and get ahead of the curve with sustainability, will be rewarded with a long future of loyal shoppers and healthy revenue. And it doesn’t have to be as hard as you might think.
The scoop on sustainable e-commerce
- Why make your e-commerce store more sustainable?
- How can e-commerce become sustainable? Start by just saying no to greenwashing
- 5 practical tips to improve e-commerce sustainability while protecting your store’s ROI
Looking for a flexible funding partner? SellersFi is the all-in-one financial solution platform designed for growing e-commerce merchants. Learn more about how we can help you scale your store.
Why make your e-commerce store more sustainable?
By now, we all know that being environmentally conscious is the right thing to do. But to really understand what’s at stake for your brand, put yourself in your customer’s shoes for a moment.
Everywhere shoppers look, they’re surrounded by harsh realities about the state of the global environment and their impact as consumers.
Consider just a handful of recent data:
- Today, there are an estimated two trillion pieces of plastic in the North Pacific Ocean.
- Amazon emitted 60.64 million metric tons of carbon dioxide last year, the equivalent of burning 140 million barrels of oil.
- And Amazon’s carbon footprint grew by 19% in 2020.
Of course, these aren’t just numbers. These statistics have a real-life impact.
For example, fossil fuel combustion was responsible for an estimated 8.2 million premature deaths in 2018. Is it really any wonder that more than one-third of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainability?
And yet, a recent UK customer survey by Klaviyo found that these pledges by consumers don’t always apply when it comes to their wallets.
The study found that while 89% of shoppers said sustainability was somewhat important to them when purchasing a new product, only 27% regularly or always opted for a sustainable product in the last six months.
For sellers, it’s a lot to take in.
You want to deliver on customer demands. You want to do better for the environment. But how can you become more sustainable, without increasing the costs of your products?
The truth is, there’s no hard answer to this question. Brand owners must create their own sustainability policies based on what makes sense for their unique customers and businesses.
The good news is, there have never been more ways to start making an impact.
But before we dive into the many ROI-friendly ways to start making your brand more sustainable, let’s take a moment to face one of e-commerce’s biggest problems head-on: greenwashing.
How can e-commerce become sustainable? Start by just saying no to greenwashing
The Deloitte Sustainability & Consumer Behaviour 2021 study found that 15% of UK consumers cited a lack of information as a key barrier to adopting a sustainable lifestyle. Another 46% said they wanted clarity on product sourcing.
Yet according to a 2020 European study, 42% of online stores gave authorities reason to believe their environmental claims were false, deceptive, and potentially in violation of EU law.
The study was conducted by the European Commission with the explicit goal of investigating “green” claims from online retailers’ websites. It assessed 344 “seemingly dubious” sustainability claims made by online stores, most of which were in the apparel, household equipment, cosmetics, and personal care niches.
In most cases, brands failed to offer consumers enough information to assess a claim’s accuracy, while 37% of cases used vague terms without substantiating them.
Now that customers have better access to information, increased environmental literacy, and tools such as the Ecolabel Index to instantly let them know if a brand is genuinely walking the walk with sustainability — there is no hiding behind greenwashing.
Today’s consumers can tell at a glance the brands are being sincere versus those that are being deceptive. But that doesn’t mean you have to rip and replace your entire business model to meet consumers’ standards.
Start by focusing on the small things you can control. Then, slowly take larger steps to elevate your brand’s sustainability practices.
Here are some proven tips to get you started.
5 practical tips to improve e-commerce sustainability while protecting your store’s ROI
#1. Set specific goals for becoming a sustainable e-commerce brand
As an e-commerce entrepreneur, you already know nothing worthwhile ever happens overnight. Expecting your brand to reach net-zero carbon status in a matter of weeks is simply unrealistic.
Rather than aiming for perfection, focus on small practical steps you can accomplish this year, within the next three years, and so on.
The Environmental Defense Fund suggests seven straightforward steps in their Roadmap to Sustainable E-commerce:
- Assess your chemical and carbon footprints. Develop a baseline of your impacts so you know where to focus your efforts and can track your progress over time.
- Set ambitious goals to address your footprints. Develop time-bound policies for each of your improvement areas based on what is most critical for humans and the environment.
- Align business operations to your sustainability goals. Make sure your team, incentives, training, and technology are positioned to help you achieve your sustainability goals.
- Engage product suppliers to meet your goals. Reset expectations with suppliers and create a system for tracking and monitoring your progress.
- Help consumers make sustainable choices. Use your influence as an e-commerce brand to cultivate a more conscious consumer base.
- Measure your progress and share it publicly. Improve performance and accountability with regular reporting.
- Lead your industry forward on sustainability. As you start making progress on your sustainability goals, use your voice to champion industry adoption.
For each of the above steps, set specific milestones with timelines to ensure steady and consistent progress. You’ll also want to decide which e-commerce key performance indicators (KPIs) you’ll use to measure your success in each area as you move forward.
If you’re ever in doubt, remember that there are plenty of resources available to help you find your way forward.
You can check in on picture big-picture missions like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or the business community’s latest B Lab criteria for B Corp certification as helpful guideposts on your journey.
#2. Let shoppers know what steps you’re taking
The previously mentioned Klaviyo study also found that 47% of consumers said they want to see “believable proof” that their purchase is making a difference.
To deliver on consumer demands for transparency, start your sustainability journey by sharing any steps you’re already taking to make your store more sustainable.
Whether it’s partnering with local suppliers, reducing packaging, or using recycled material, let the consumer know exactly which steps you’re taking while being open about the fact that there’s always more you can do as you move toward becoming a more ethical and sustainable brand.
As Gen-X and millennial shoppers step into their buying power years, sustainability isn’t going away anytime soon. If anything, consumers are becoming better versed and more willing to accept that no person (or brand) is a completely flawless eco-warrior — and that shouldn’t keep them from trying.
For example, Reve En Vert is an e-commerce luxury fashion brand that positions itself as a “platform for sustainable living”.
The store’s website walks customers through a step-by-step guide on how they help them achieve their stated ethos.
- Reve partners with independent designers who are committed to using organic materials, including upcycled and recycled textiles.
- Customers can see what materials the product is made from, who made it, and where it’s coming from.
- The website messaging is bold enough to admit that sustainable fashion is not yet inexpensive, but is clear on why it’s still worth it.
Whatever this looks like for your own brand, be transparent about your sustainability goals and the steps you’re taking to achieve them.
After all, you never know which customers will be willing to come along for the journey.
#3. Aim for carbon-neutral delivery
In an interview with E-commerce CX and Technology podcast, Wearth CEO and co-founder Ed Davies shares his own journey of creating a sustainable e-commerce brand before eventually launching one of the UK’s leading marketplaces for eco-conscious products.
“Being an eco-conscious company is difficult, especially being a startup where costs are ultimately a key element,” Ed admits.
Since delivery is the main culprit in carbon emissions in e-commerce, Wearth launched several initiatives to mitigate it.
Today, Wearth partners with a third-party company called Climate Partner to calculate the carbon emissions from the sellers on its platform, then pay to offset those emissions through initiatives like forest projects and more.
To start offsetting your store’s carbon footprint, start by:
- Measuring how much carbon emissions your products are producing
- Creating a system to track emissions and benchmark progress
- Investing in affordable ways to offset your emissions
“The cost is actually quite low,” explains Ed. “There’s obviously a resource in us having to keep track of that data. But we review it about every six months to a year. Then we go ahead and mitigate it.”
With the variety of carbon offsetting tools available, Ed believes this is one area where it’s more about willpower than budget.
“In terms of costs and practical elements, I think that most companies would actually be able to do it without it affecting the bottom line. I guess it’s just one of those things, whether it’s a priority for that particular business.”
#4. Opt for sustainable shipping and packaging
It’s no secret today’s consumers love fast and free shipping. Unfortunately, those preferences don’t always lend themselves to affordable and sustainable shipping options.
But this is another area where a little transparency can help.
Whether you’re lengthening your timelines, increasing your shipping fees, or simply letting the consumer choose whether to offset the carbon emission from their purchase, let your customers know exactly what the added cost is and how it helps the environment.
Once again, this will vary based on your individual brand and business goals. For example, brands able to buy in bulk may be able to limit transportation costs while minimizing carbon emissions.
On the other hand, brands with bespoke products or multiple product variations might offer customers the option to choose between eco-friendly packaging and standard packaging.
#5. Embrace recycling and upcycling
In 2020, a survey by McKinsey & Co. found that 55% of US consumers are extremely or very concerned about the environmental impact of product packaging.
You can lose the loop and improve your brand’s sustainability profile by encouraging consumers to send in their used products.
For example, Patagonia created Worn Wear, an online store dedicated to used Patagonia clothing. Customers can receive credit for a new or used item when they trade in their used Patagonia clothing. This is a great way to increase loyalty with existing shoppers.
Build a sustainable e-commerce brand. Make a real difference.
Even though experts praise sustainability, many brands can’t or won’t do the work necessary to compete in this arena.
But with increased innovation in sustainable e-commerce, the ROI in this area will only get healthier over time. By taking sustainable e-commerce seriously, you’ll instantly differentiate your brand from the pack. You’ll also attract a larger and more loyal customer base, resulting in even greater dividends in the decades to come.
So go ahead and create a legacy you can be proud of. Whether it’s helping to reduce harmful emissions or creating environmentally-friendly products, there’s always a simple place to start. At SellersFi, we’re continually inspired by our e-commerce clients who go out into the world and make their dreams happen. We’re on a mission to support e-commerce brands worldwide with solutions that move the needle in your plans. Get in touch to learn how we can help your store win.