Sustainability in online retail - how online retailers can make their business greener

Sustainability in online retail - how online retailers can make their business greener
Fri, 09/20/2019

Shopping online is fast, convenient and uncomplicated. But most of the time, this luxury comes at the expense of the environment. The many orders that Germans place every day leave a large ecological footprint. Above all, shipping, returns and the packaging of the goods contribute to harming the environment. That's why sustainability is particularly important in online retail.

Items of clothing are often packed individually in small plastic bags, small products are delivered in huge parcels or the same item is ordered in multiples. Thousands of delivery trucks travel through Germany every day to deliver parcels and bring returns back to the retailer. This causes tons of CO2. For this reason, there needs to be a rethink in online retailing.


Interest in sustainable products


The impression is that Germany is becoming increasingly aware that we need to do more for our environment instead of continuing to pollute it. There are already numerous sustainable brands that produce fair merchandise while offering environmentally friendly materials and shipping. However, the disadvantage here is that these products are often more expensive than those of the fashion chains. This is because these brands focus on fair pay for employees and use higher quality materials. However, for some customers, the prices are usually too high.

In a study by VuMa the German population was asked how much they agreed with the following statement: "When buying products, it is important to me that the respective company acts in a socially and ecologically responsible manner." This statement was true or mostly true for as many as 26 percent. Around 11 percent said they did not agree with this statement at all.

Image That the online company acts in a socially and ecologically responsible manner is important to the majority of respondents. (Source: VuMa/ Statista)

Solutions for sustainability in online retail

But how can sustainability be implemented in online retailing and at the same time be profitable for retailers, customers and the environment?

It is important that retailers do not engage in greenwashing. Rather, they must disclose process flows and communicate transparently. False promises and misleading advertising are much more likely to trigger distrust among consumers than a positive image.

[tooltip title="Greenwashing" color="blue"]This term refers to the attempt by companies to gain an environmentally friendly and responsible image through marketing and PR measures. However, measures for a more environmentally conscious action are not implemented. Customer should only get the impression.[/tooltip]

There are many proposed solutions for sustainability in online retailing, but not all of them are feasible for retailers to implement. Even if many of them cannot turn their entire business model on its head, there are ways to make the mail order business a little greener.

Tips for retailers

There are a few things merchants can consider to make mail order more environmentally friendly.

Offer more environmentally conscious shipping as a choice


Meanwhile, some delivery services are offering greener shipping options. DHL promises carbon-neutral shipping with its GoGreen program. Here, greenhouse gases produced by the transport are offset by climate protection projects.

Don't use plastic packaging

Often the delivered goods are additionally packed in plastic. For less waste, retailers can opt for sustainable packaging materials here. Recycled filling materials and products made from rapidly renewable raw materials are ideal here. The Armedangels brand, for example, uses grass packaging instead of wood.

Image Armedangels shows its customers the added value of grass packaging over other packaging materials. (Source: Armedangels)

Use reusable packaging


Another option is to reuse packaging materials. For example, customers could specify when ordering whether they want to receive their product in new packaging or also be satisfied with packaging that has already been used.

Do not allow returned goods to be destroyed

Last year, internet giant Amazon appeared in some headlines. It was revealed that the marketplace was destroying returns instead of inspecting, repackaging and reshipping them. But the online retailer is not alone in this. That these destructions have an extremely negative impact on the environmental balance is clear. Companies should therefore refrain from doing these things, not only because perfectly good goods are simply thrown away, but also because it happens at the expense of the environment.

Do not offer free returns

According to the business magazine Plusminus, 800,000 packages are returned every day. That is said to account for 400 tons of CO2. This can be compared with 255 car journeys from Frankfurt to Beijing.

Many online retailers offer free returns. This leads to customers ordering items in multiples. What they don't like or fit, they send back afterwards. Returns are particularly high in the fashion sector. In one quarter, every second order is returned to the retailer. If they charged return costs, customers might think twice before ordering additional products.

ImageThe annual number of returns could circle the globe nearly three times.

Don't use large packages for small goods


Despite very small goods, many online retailers use standard sizes to ship their products. They then line the free space in the package with filler material. This not only creates unnecessary and extra waste, but also takes up more space in the delivery car than necessary. This could be used for other packages instead. Retailers should therefore make sure to adapt the packaging to the size of the product as well. Amazon now wants its manufacturers to use smaller packaging.

Create detailed item descriptions


Using more detailed item descriptions and images, online retailers can minimize high returns. The more accurately the product is described, the better customers can gauge whether it suits their tastes. To avoid returns, the fairtrade brand erlich textil gives precise tips on how to find the right size directly. It also describes the material and fit of the underwear in detail.


Image erlich textil describes its articles precisely to avoid returns and thus do something good for the environment. (Source: erlichtextil)

Do not send individual packages


Often, an order is divided into several partial shipments. The reason for this can be, for example, that one product is already available, while the customer would have to wait a little longer for the other. However, in the case of small differences in delivery times, retailers should refrain from sending multiple packages, because often small time margins do not make a big difference to the customer.

Tips for customers

Not only retailers are responsible to make online trade more sustainable, customers can also make some improvements.

No express delivery

With express deliveries, the goods have to reach the customer as quickly as possible. As a result, delivery trucks are not fully loaded. If the delivery is not urgent, consumers should rather choose the standard shipping, because here the delivery services load the vehicles fully and can thus deliver more packages in one trip. 

No second delivery attempts


Many delivery services make a second delivery attempt should they not have encountered the customer the first time. These are additional ways that are not really necessary. If the customer is not at home when the delivery is made, he or she can, for example, specify a drop-off location near the house or apartment, or specify a preferred neighbor with whom the package can be left.

No pre-testing in the store

It sometimes happens that customers view or try the goods in advance in the store and then order them online after all. Instead of placing an online order, customers could buy the products right there in the store. This is because delivery causes additional CO2, which is not really necessary. Even if the item is a few euros cheaper online, the environment has to pay for it.


One thing is certain: in order not to harm the environment in the long term, sustainability is important in online retail. It is clear that not every online retailer can turn its business model around 180 degrees overnight. But small steps in the right direction are at least a start. Whether it's switching to more environmentally friendly shipping methods, avoiding plastic packaging, or switching to hybrid or electric mobility. All of these things are already an improvement and a start to enforcing sustainability in online retail as well.

Written by



Create new reasons for people to love your brand. Build standout post-sales experiences tailored to your customers. Deliver personalized touch points that grab attention and spark loyalty.

More from the category Research