Sustainable e-commerce: greenwashing or real action?
Published on: July 1, 2022
Updated: August 28, 2023
Sustainability has become a burning issue in e-commerce. Customers want it – and the whole planet needs it. But just how sustainable is sustainable e-commerce? Are brands and retailers really taking action, or is it just a marketing tactic?
We’re taking a closer look at what “sustainability” actually means in practice, and how e-commerce can help.
What does sustainability mean in 2022?
A couple of years ago, McKinsey published a global analysis of sustainable packaging. It reveals that consumers in every country say they want sustainability. But they have a hard time defining what that means. People are not confident Which types of packaging are better for the planet? How do you know whether a product was sustainably produced? Who sets the standard?
Since that report was published, the concept of sustainability has grown to include a lot of different aspects. When we talk about sustainable e-commerce, that can include:
- Products made from recycled or recyclable materials.
- Lightweight, recycled or recyclable packaging.
- Carbon-neutral delivery options.
- Sharing profits with charity or community initiatives.
- Providing opportunities for staff at all levels of the business.
Sustainability advocates often focus on the environment – but it’s also about social responsibility. When consumers say that they want to shop sustainably, it’s part of a broader trend for values-driven decision making.
So e-commerce retailers and brands need to take a 360-degree approach to sustainability. When they cut corners, they risk alienating shoppers.
How e-commerce brands are rising to the challenge
One major retailer which exemplifies this is Macy’s. At the start of 2022, the department store announced a $5 billion sustainability initiative with three aspects: planet, people, and communities.
The “planet” aspect includes using more sustainable materials, reducing waste, and auditing supplier factories for environmental impact. At the same time, the retailer is working on social equity by investing in education benefits, setting diversity targets, and increasing minimum hourly pay. And with a special focus on e-commerce, they’re also adding thousands of certified sustainable products to their online offering.
Other retailers focus on what happens post-purchase. This includes looking for ways to make their shipping, delivery, and returns more sustainable. In Canada, Walmart is pioneering carbon-neutral delivery with an electric vehicle fleet and carbon offset program. And there’s a host of start-ups that aim to support retailers with sustainable transport and disposal, using smart data platforms to stay up to date.
Key points for sustainable e-commerce
So, if you’re serious about sustainability, where’s the best place to start? How can e-commerce brands and retailers make a difference?
- Create a strategy. Individual ideas for sustainability are great, but they need to be part of a coherent project. Find opportunities to make every part of your e-commerce business more sustainable.
- Understand your supply chains. From materials to manufacturers to stock levels, knowledge is power. Mapping supply chains and tracking stock levels can help improve efficiency.
- Offer sustainable packaging and delivery options. In a recent survey, 90% of consumers said they are more likely to choose an e-commerce brand that offers eco-friendly delivery.
- Look into resale and repair programs. These are increasingly popular with brands and shoppers alike. The EU is also introducing regulations to force fashion companies to use more sustainable materials and give customers more repair support. However, to offer sustainable repairs or resale, you’ll need a seamless returns system.
- Show that you care about your people. Social responsibility is a key part of sustainability, so talk about how you support the staff in your offices, factories, and any brick-and-mortar stores. If you don’t have anything to say yet, that’s a sign you need to do more.
- Include customers in your sustainability strategy. Talk about what you’re doing. Encourage customers to choose sustainable products or delivery options. Give them the chance to contribute. Footwear brand Toms is a great example of this: as well as their famous “buy one, give one” initiative, they’ve made “Impact” one of the first things customers can click on their website.
A big part of any sustainability initiative is collecting information to understand what’s actually going on in your business. Data about your deliveries, stock levels, and customer behavior can all feed back into sustainability plans and help you become more efficient. From supply chains to shipping, resale to returns, the green revolution in e-commerce will be built on better data.