From shopping in the comfort of home, access to a seemingly endless variety of products, and ease of price comparison, ecommerce presents consumers with an array of benefits.
The industry isn’t without its flaws, however—particularly when it comes to environmental impact.
Although not a silver bullet, implementing sustainable ecommerce practices will go a long way to combating some, if not many, of the environmental problems the ecommerce industry presents.
Let’s break down sustainable ecommerce further.
What Is Sustainable ecommerce?
The term “sustainable ecommerce ” refers to online stores that have adopted or are actively adopting environmentally and socially responsible practices. In other words, sustainable ecommerce businesses strive to meet market demand while minimizing the negative impact on the planet caused by anthropogenically-driven climate change (climate change caused by human activity) and other environmental issues caused by industrial pollution.
Why the business case for sustainable ecommerce is so compelling?
Although the primary motive for sustainable ecommerce is largely focused on reducing the environmental impact of doing business, it’s essential to acknowledge that business benefits can be gained by making your ecommerce more sustainable.
You read that right, your business can actually grow by adopting sustainable ecommerce practices.
Okay, sure, but just how compelling is the call for sustainable ecommerce?
A recent survey found that 80 percent of respondents felt it was “important or extremely important” for organizations to develop environmentally conscious products. Further, 73 percent of global consumers claim they would “definitely” or “probably” change their consumption behavior to reduce environmental impact.
Is ecommerce sustainable?
It depends on who you talk to, and it’s complicated to define as there are so many moving parts in ecommerce. This complexity is reflected in the research. Some studies show that ecommerce is more unsustainable than brick-and-mortar stores, while others conclude that shopping online is more environmentally friendly.
For example, according to this recent study, shopping in a brick-and-mortar store can be up to 60 percent more sustainable than shopping online.
*image courtesy of Simon
The study attributed the increased emissions of online shopping to
- The fact that ecommerce orders are often shipped long distances—sometimes across the country or the globe.
- Product returns are five times more likely when shopping online than in-store.
- Shopping online creates five times more emissions due to packaging such as corrugated boxes, bubble wrap, and the like.
- Same-day delivery or quick shipping also increased emissions, particularly due to increased air freight.
Another study backs up these findings. Packaging and returns are the biggest emitters for online retailers.
The good news is there’s plenty of room for improvement. Online shopping within the US can be up to 17 percent more carbon-efficient than shopping traditionally when sustainable practices are implemented.
Learn more about eco-friendly delivery.
Consumers are Demanding Sustainable ecommerce
So what is the demand for sustainable ecommerce?
And is the average shopper willing to change their habits and expectations in the name of sustainability?
The answer to both these questions seems to be a resounding yes.
For proof, let’s turn, once again, to the research.
A recent study found that 66 percent of US adults are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products. This is significant because, although sustainable products often come with an increased upfront cost (on average, a 75-85 percent price hike over conventional products), the long-term benefits—including decreased emissions, improved customer satisfaction, and increased brand loyalty—far outweigh the initial investment.
And to consumers, sustainability trumps the cost of a product.
*image courtesy of Kearny
Further, 81 percent of global shoppers strongly believe businesses have a key role in improving the environment.
This sentiment opens a huge door of opportunity for ecommerce businesses worldwide.
Suppose you can adjust your business practices to meet the demand for sustainable ecommerce. In that case, you can differentiate yourself from the competition and appeal to ethical buyers who prioritize sustainability in their purchasing decisions.
Many Successful Businesses Have Transitioned to a Sustainable Model
Let’s look at some small to medium-sized ecommerce stores that have achieved just that.
SwagOz is an Australian-based online store that sells a wide range of sustainable products like dish soap bars, non-paper towels, reusable makeup pads, and more. SwagOz, however, is most famous for its reusable produce storage bags called The Swag.
Swag bags have been scientifically proven to keep fruits and vegetables—stored within refrigerators—fresh for up to two weeks. Further, Swag bags are made from 100 percent compostable, toxic-free, and fair-trade cotton.
Biome is another Australian-based online store specializing in eco-friendly and sustainable living products such as natural skincare, reusable water bottles, eco-friendly cleaning products, and biodegradable cleaning tools.
This ecommerce business is dedicated to its sustainability mission and has pledged to continuously reduce its environmental impact. Biome also guarantees the products they sell are free from all known toxins, are cruelty-free, are made from natural fibers, and are long-lasting. Just another way that Biome is showing its commitment to sustainability.
Kind Coffee is a US-based online coffee shop that sources ethically grown, single-origin coffee from some of the best smallholder coffee farms in the world. Every purchase from Kind Coffee is a part of a larger initiative to create sustainable livelihoods for coffee farmers.
This ecommerce business is pioneering sustainability in the coffee industry. Kind Coffee sells Fairtrade-certified coffee that is predominately organic, making it not only healthy for customers but also sustainable and environmentally friendly.
U-Konserve is another US-based online store specializing in sustainable food and beverage storage. They offer an array of products made from eco-friendly materials such as glass, stainless steel, and silicone.
U-Konserve is committed to reducing single-use plastic and making food storage more environmentally friendly. Not only does this ecommerce business offer reusable products, but it also encourages customers to consider the environmental impact of their purchases and to switch out plastic for more sustainable items.
Honeybee Wrap is an ecommerce business specializing in reusable beeswax wraps. These wraps are a sustainable alternative to single-use plastic wrap and cling film, usually made from petroleum-based plastics, and instead are made from a combination of organic cotton, beeswax, and jojoba oil.
Honeybee Wrap is helping to reduce plastic waste and the emissions generated from the production of single-use plastic wrap.
PlanetBox offers a range of reusable lunch solutions for adults and children. The company’s mission is to reduce the amount of single-use packaging and plastic waste worldwide.
PlanetBox sells lunchboxes, bento boxes, water bottles, snack boxes, and more. These products are made from sustainable materials such as stainless steel and food-grade silicone, making them safe for food storage.
Lousy Ink is a great example of an ecommerce business helping to create a more sustainable future. The Melbourne-based company takes empty printer cartridges, crushes them, and repurposes the plastic into 100 percent recycled ink.
This is not only a sustainable way of shopping but also a creative one. The company’s ink is perfect for creating art, and users can access a range of colors and effects, all while reducing materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
Ecostore is an online store from New Zealand that specializes in non-toxic, sustainable products. Their products, made in NZ but available here in the US, are free from nasty toxins and are made from natural and renewable ingredients. The company is always looking for ways to reduce its environmental impact, such as using recycled and recyclable packaging, solar energy, and planting trees.
Ecostore is leading the way in sustainability by showing people the power of natural and sustainable products. They are also partnered with the Live Ocean Foundation. An organization dedicated to restoring the biodiversity of our oceans, supporting marine ecosystems, and funding clean-up projects.
Flora & Fauna
Flora & Fauna specializes in natural, vegan, and cruelty-free products. Flora & Fauna offers a wide range of products, including skincare, body care, makeup, food and drink, and lifestyle products.
This ecommerce business is committed to sustainability in all areas of its business. All their products are natural and vegan, and they are continuously looking for ways to reduce their environmental impacts, such as using eco-friendly packaging and plant-based shipping materials.
Avocado Green Mattress
Last but not least, Avocado Green Mattress is a US-based company offering premium mattresses made from natural and sustainable materials. The company offers mattresses made from organic and natural materials, such as cotton, wool, and natural oils.
Avocado Green Mattress is committed to providing its customers with a healthier and greener sleep experience. They are also dedicated to using sustainable and eco-friendly materials and processes for every mattress they make.
13 Ways You Can Start Moving Towards Sustainable ECommerce
Now that you know more about what sustainable ecommerce entails and have (hopefully) pulled inspiration from sustainable ecommerce stores already operating in the space, let’s look at 13 ways you can make your ecommerce more sustainable.
While some of these may not be feasible for your particular business, we’re confident that you’ll be able to find at least a few that make sense.
1. Reduce energy waste, or opt for alternatives
Improving your ecommerce brand’s energy efficiency is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and operating costs. One of the best and most cost-effective ways to do this is to install energy-efficient lighting, such as LED bulbs. You could also consider reducing energy waste by installing occupancy sensors that automatically turn lights off when a room is unoccupied.
Another option is to switch to alternative energy sources, such as solar. This is an excellent solution to reduce your reliance on fossil fuels, and you may be eligible for government incentives, such as tax breaks or rebates.
Want to learn more about how to offset your carbon footprint? We got you covered! Click the link.
2. Add products that encourage sustainability
Adding products that help people live a more sustainable lifestyle is another great way to make your ecommerce business more sustainable.
You can start by looking at products that help people reduce their energy consumption, such as low-flow showerheads, light dimmers, and energy-efficient appliances. You can also look for products made from sustainable materials, such as bamboo, hemp, and organic cotton.
E-grocery is also on the rise, so organic foods, eco-friendly cleaning products, and personal care items made from natural ingredients may complement your current product offerings.
3. Avoid packaging waste
The most pressing issue with ecommerce is the amount of emissions generated by packaging, returns, and the waste generated when products are shipped. One way to reduce this is to opt for more sustainable packaging materials, such as recycled cardboard and biodegradable materials.
You can also look into offering a “no-frills” shipping option. This allows customers to opt out of receiving extras such as promotional material and product literature.
4. Give back to the environment
In addition to reducing your environmental impact, you can also give back to the environment by partnering with organizations that already have well-established practices that support environmental conservation.
One way to do this is by donating a portion of the profits from each purchase to a conservation organization, like 1% for the Planet or Leave No Trace. You can also partner with a carbon-offset program, like EcoCart, to ensure your shipments are offset by the equivalent amount of carbon saved by planting trees or conserving natural resources.
There are also a variety of apps to reduce the carbon footprint of your business.
5. Allow Customers to Opt Into Sustainability (EcoCart)
Here at EcoCart, we allow customers to opt into sustainability through a pain-free donation at checkout. This money, over 90 percent of each dollar, is then donated to one of the many carbon-offset programs set up in various locations across the globe.
This gives customers the option to do more than just shop more responsibly. It also gives them an easy way to show their commitment to sustainability.
6. Consciously managing deliveries and returns.
To reduce emissions and waste associated with deliveries and returns, online stores can use carbon-neutral delivery services that offset the emissions from their shipment by investing in renewable energy projects, such as regenerative agriculture, wind energy, or hydropower.
You can also look into local delivery services using electric, hybrid, or hydrogen-fueled vehicles. And reduce waste associated with returns by offering free return labels or incentives for customers to reuse or repurpose their product packaging.
Learn more: carbon offset Shopify app.
7. Create and maintain recycling policies
Creating and maintaining recycling policies can help you reduce waste and make your ecommerce business more sustainable. Make sure your policies are clearly outlined and easy to understand.
It would be best to consider incentivizing customers to return or donate their used items to reduce unnecessary waste. Reusing and repurposing items is also a great way to reduce waste and give back to the community.
8. Use an ecommerce marketplace to resell your used merchandise (or donate?)
If you’re looking to reduce waste associated with selling used merchandise, you can use an ecommerce marketplace to resell your items to buyers looking for a good deal.
If reselling is not an option, you can donate your used items to a local charity or community group. This allows customers to feel good about giving back and reduces waste.
9. Reduce the Need for Returns
As we discovered earlier, returns are costly, not only in terms of money but also in terms of resources used for delivery, packaging, and environmental impact. To reduce the need for returns, you should streamline your product page to help customers make well-informed buying decisions. Make sure also to include detailed product information and accurate sizing guides.
You can also offer virtual fittings, such as virtual shoe-fitting, to help customers get the right fit and prevent returns. Or create a product recommendation system that uses AI to suggest similar items that are more likely to be the right size or fit.
10. Reducing consumption with durable goods and repairability
Reducing consumption is key to becoming a more sustainable ecommerce business. To do this, you should focus on selling durable goods that have a long lifespan. You can also look into offering repair services or partnering with local businesses to offer repair services for your products. This will not only increase the lifespan of the products you sell but also reduce the need for the production and delivery of new items, reducing your environmental impact.
11. Offer Eco-Friendly Shipping
Another way to make your ecommerce business more sustainable is to offer eco-friendly shipping. There are a few different ways to do this, such as using recycled packaging, opting for more sustainable shipping materials, and avoiding single-use plastics.
You can also partner with a carbon-offset program to ensure your shipments are offset by the equivalent amount of carbon saved by planting trees or conserving natural resources.
12. Leveraging Product Data to Help Consumers Make Better Decisions
The best way to ensure that your customers make informed and responsible buying decisions is to provide accurate and helpful product information. To do this, you need to leverage product data to inform customers about the sustainability and environmental impact of the items they buy.
You can do this by providing detailed product descriptions and sourcing information, as well as the environmental impact of the product. This could include where the item was manufactured, how it was made, the materials used, and any certifications the product may have.
Applia Product Information Standard
The Applia Product Information Standard (APIS) is an excellent resource for ecommerce businesses looking to provide detailed and accurate product information. This standard allows companies to share information about their products’ origin, materials, and certifications, making it easier for customers to make more sustainable purchases.
To provide accurate and helpful information about your products, it’s essential to understand and use HS codes. HS codes are standard international codes that classify goods and services for tariff and customs purposes.
Understanding HS codes can help you accurately classify your products and provide detailed product information. This can help customers make more sustainable decisions and promote sustainability within your ecommerce business.
The EU Eco-Label program is a voluntary certification system that encourages the production and use of sustainable products and services. Companies must demonstrate that their products meet certain sustainability requirements to obtain the EU Eco-Label.
By obtaining the EU Eco-Label for your products, you can showcase your sustainability commitment and make it easier for customers to drive sustainable buying decisions.
13. Update your brand’s mission
To ensure that sustainability is a top priority for your ecommerce business, you should update your brand’s mission to reflect your commitment. This should include focusing on sustainability, reducing your environmental impact, and supporting like-minded causes.
Make sure to include specific goals and initiatives to help your customers better understand your commitment and give them a sense of trust in your brand. You should also clearly communicate your mission and update your customers about your progress toward your goals.
What Is A Sustainable Supply Chain?
A sustainable supply chain is an environmentally responsible supply chain that aims to reduce waste, conserve resources, and minimize pollution. A sustainable supply chain can include activities such as recycling, reducing the use of toxic materials, and using renewable energy sources. It also incorporates strategies to improve the health and safety of workers and communities, preserve biodiversity, and reduce emissions. The goal of a sustainable supply chain is to create a circular economy where resources are reused, refurbished, and recycled instead of discarded.
Is ecommerce sustainable?: As much as you want it to be.
Sustainable ecommerce is becoming increasingly important. The advantages of sustainable ecommerce come from increased efficiency, reduced environmental impact, improved customer satisfaction, and increased brand loyalty.
With the right strategies in place, your ecommerce business can become more sustainable and reap the rewards of doing so.
Learn more about how we’ve helped thousands of online businesses drive growth through sustainability.