The concepts of environmental friendliness, social consciousness and sustainability have been around since 1969, but in the last decade have gained traction as the harsh effects of climate change become increasingly prominent and unforgiving.
People are now more aware about how their consumption impacts the environment, and businesses have been quick to pick up on this, adapting their practices to appeal to the green consumer. But just how eco-friendly is an eCommerce business in comparison to one with a traditional brick and-mortar store? The environmental cost of manufacturing, transporting and eventual wastage of something as fundamental to the industry as shipping materials could be just as much as that of keeping the lights and aircon running in a physical store. Unfortunately, this has been a hotly-debated topic since the dawn of the digital age, and the answer will continue to elude us. Nevertheless, we, as eCommerce business owners, should do what we can to reduce our ecological footprint.
In this article, we look at what you, as an eCommerce business owner can do to minimize your company's negative impact on the environment.
1) Sell eco-friendly products
If you're planning to jump onto the eCommerce wagon, why don't you consider selling eco-friendly products? Or if your company is already established, how about adding a product line which focuses on eco-friendly, upcycled, or zero-waste items?
As a whole, it would help to spread the message about sustainability. But on a smaller scale, it would help to build brand loyalty among customers who share similar values or simply want to champion a good cause.
Just in case you thought that bringing your own food container to get takeout was not environmentally-friendly enough, Japanese lunchbox retailer Bento&co takes it a step further by expanding their product range to include bento boxes made of biodegradable and recyclable materials such as bamboo and stainless steel. Also in the works- bento boxes made of 50% BPA-free plastic and 50% wood to reduce plastic usage!
2) Rethink your packaging
Packaging fillers and bubble wrap serve one primary purpose- to secure your items so that they do not get damaged during the shipping process. Unfortunately, this is where the bulk of non-biodegradable wastage comes from. If you cannot find an alternative to these box fillers, you could either include a message to your customers encouraging them to recycle their packaging materials, or better yet, offer to take back styrofoam packing peanuts so you can reuse them for your next customer. Save money and the environment at the same time!
If none of these options are available to you, perhaps you could analyze your packaging. Could you minimize or do away with certain components of your packaging altogether? Are you able to replace non-biodegradable packing materials with biodegradable alternatives? Is it possible to deliver your items in a packaging which can be repurposed as something else around the home?
3) Look for local suppliers
If you ship your products cross-border, it is inevitable that you will be creating a carbon footprint when you send orders out to customers. It is a necessary evil which is beyond your control, yet essential for your business. So what can you do on your part? Look no further than your supply chain! Acquiring products from local suppliers can ensure that you keep your carbon footprint small because shipping materials by plane would definitely produce more carbon emissions than transporting materials by land.
Working with local suppliers is not just beneficial for the environment. It could also help you form and maintain good relationships with producers in your supply chain which can be instrumental in keeping lead times short, overheads low, and carbon emissions under control.
Economics 101 fun fact- by engaging local suppliers, you help to keep money in the local economy and as a result, boost your country's economic base. Do your part for the environment and your nation at the same time!
4) Delivery windows
It has long been established that online orders have a much smaller carbon footprint than traditional store purchases. But did you know that this only holds true until your customer chooses the express shipping option?
Although customers tend to favor fast shipping, keeping the shipping period long gives companies the chance to use the most environmentally-friendly and economical ways to deliver goods to customers. It allows companies to consolidate orders and maximize the capacity of delivery vehicles, whereas next-day or expedited shipping options force companies to despatch vehicles which are not at full capacity.
Putting a "green shipping" option at checkout could be an effective way to educate your customers on the negative environmental impacts of express shipping, while helping your company reduce its carbon footprint. As an added bonus, it would further drive home the point that your company is on the path to sustainability.
5) Give back
Giving back to a cause always makes customers feel good. Wouldn't you feel good too if you knew that a percentage of your purchase was going towards planting more trees, or school supplies for underprivileged kids? It is certainly something you might want to think about, not just for your eco-aware customers, but also for the sake of doing good.
Etsy became the first major eCommerce platform to offset 100% of carbon emissions from global shipping. They do this by funding emissions reduction projects through their partner, 3degrees. So every time someone orders an item on Etsy, they balance out the carbon emissions from shipping that purchase with a verified emissions reduction purchase which comes at no charge to the buyers and sellers on Etsy.
Of course what Etsy is doing is much more challenging to replicate in a smaller business. Nevertheless, it is still fine food for thought.
The take home message here is that if we want to embrace sustainability, we have to walk the talk. This means that sustainability has to have a place at the very core of our organization's DNA from its operational processes to the company's ethos.
Environmental impact should be at the forefront of a business owner's mind, not a value that is extolled only when convenient. Align your business with the social or environmental cause you have in mind, and think about how you can adapt your business to accommodate or give back to your cause. A step in the right direction, no matter how small is better than no action taken at all.
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