With the rise of the internet and social media, e-commerce has become, and remains, one of the most dominant ways goods and services are purchased. This growth only escalated as the spread of COVID-19 forced people into lockdown and quarantine. As it became unsafe to go to physical stores, online retailers stepped up to get everything people wanted and needed to their doors.
In that effort, however, most companies are not being as climate-conscious as they should, focusing on efficiency and profit over sustainability. This drive, of course, has led to an increasingly dramatic environmental impact in a time when climate change is more severe than ever. This is not only irresponsible but downright dangerous.
In turn, the leaders of these companies need to step up and make changes within their operations to ensure they not only minimise damage to the environment but eventually remedy it.
HOW E-COMMERCE COMPANIES CAN MINIMISE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
It’s one thing to say you’ll work to protect the environment, and another to make the changes necessary to do so. But what, exactly, would those changes look like for an e-commerce business?
You could adjust your packaging, optimise transportation, eliminate certain chemicals from your products, and work to make those products last longer. You could also let people hold you accountable by allowing full transparency and making climate protection commitments.
To start, it’s vital to allow full company transparency so consumers and environmental consultants can get an idea of exactly how much work your company needs to do. After all, fixing a problem is easiest when people have a clear idea of what the problems are.
Are you using a certain chemical that leads to major environmental damage? Have you been using a disproportionate amount of plastic in your packaging? Are your products being designed to fail in a way that leads to excessive replacement and production? All of these questions and more can be answered by adopting full transparency.
This means more than posting some dry PDF buried on your website. You want the information to not only be available but easily accessible and clearly communicated. Have your graphics and web design team craft a streamlined page that helps you explain your current situation and what you plan on doing to fix it.
ANALYSE YOUR CURRENT ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
In accomplishing the above, of course, you’ll have to bring in reliable third parties to help you analyse your current environmental impact. As we said before, you can’t work on reversing said impact until you’re aware of what it truly is.
This impact can be quantified in many ways, although one of the most telling is your carbon footprint. This breaks down into the parts per million of CO₂ by volume you release into the air. To be clear, by “parts per million” we’re referring to the proportion of carbon dioxide molecules to non-CO₂ molecules. Determine that number, and you’ll have a clearer idea of what sort of damage your operations have been doing to the atmosphere.
That isn’t the only marker of environmental impact, however. For instance, we’d also suggest trying to calculate how much food waste is created within your company cafeteria or kitchen. Can you estimate how many kilos of food you’ve had to throw out? On the business side of things, can you measure how much plastic waste you’ve created through your packaging process?
It’s never pleasant to learn that you’ve been unintentionally damaging the environment, but there’s no use focusing on the past. Armed with the knowledge of your specific issues, you’ll be in a much better position to remedy them.
SWITCH TO RENEWABLE ENERGY
We understand this is a lot to ask of a company, but it’s one of the most crucial changes an e-commerce company can make. As soon as you are able to, and to the greatest extent you can, you should strongly consider switching to completely renewable energy sources, installing solar panels, wind turbines, and hydropower facilities instead of utilising fossil fuels or coal.
Besides dramatically decreasing your carbon footprint, taking advantage of renewable energy is now your cheapest option as well, especially as the costs of installation and maintenance have continued to dip down. Being that these costs were the main barrier between our current state and mass adoption of renewables, it’s only a matter of time before renewable energy becomes the standard across e-commerce businesses and beyond.
REDUCE ENERGY CONSUMPTION
Along with switching to more sustainable sources of energy, it’s vital for e-commerce company leaders to take note of their current energy consumption, and figure out where they could cut down. Tweaking production methods and streamlining delivery might not appear to make a big difference in the short term, but the energy saved stacks up over time.
By optimising delivery routes to conserve fuel in the short term, while shifting to more energy-efficient transportation with time (we’ll discuss that next), you’ll be able to dramatically diminish your carbon footprint over the next few years. Switching out older machines in your factories for more efficient updates would have a similar effect.
As you cut back your energy consumption, of course, you’ll also save anywhere from hundreds to millions of dollars depending on the scale of your operation. With that extra money in hand, you could make investments into all of the other climate-conscious adjustments you have in mind.
PROMOTE CLIMATE-CONSCIOUS TRANSPORTATION
Another part of this shift to renewable energy, of course, involves relying less on fossil fuels, coal, etc. for transportation and shipping.
So, instead of shipping with vans and trucks that use conventional gasoline, invest in some electric vehicles instead. We also recommend buying those vehicles used, if possible, as the process of making a new car creates a notable carbon footprint in itself. That being said, if you can’t find reliable used vehicles at that moment, replacing the ones you use the most with new electric alternatives will still make a difference.
Don’t get stressed looking for electric freight ships, though, as those are a very recent (and still unassured) development. An important one, nonetheless, as the ships currently out there release around 900 million metric tons of CO₂ into the air every year.
Electric planes are in a similar stage of development, although those are still quite small relative to their fossil fuel-using freight counterparts. Given the developments in battery technology that still have to occur, it may be a while before we see electric ships or planes large enough to carry cargo. So, in the meantime, optimise your wheels on the ground and keep an eye out for new developments.
FOCUS ON LONG-LASTING PRODUCTS
If you really want to reduce the environmental impact of your shipping process, though, you could focus on creating products that last longer and don’t need to be replaced as often. Instead of shipping out products—en masse—that are likely to have an unnecessarily short lifespan, why not invest in creating more reliable products that stand the test of time? The viability of this concept will vary significantly depending on the product in question, but it certainly applies as a general rule.
We know what you may be thinking, though: wouldn’t that move cost you money?
Well, that depends on whether you’re looking at the short or long term. In the short term, you would indeed lose some money, as sales on the product in question would dip following everyone’s initial purchase.
Over time, though, your customers would start to trust you more as they come to learn the quality of your products. In turn, you may find your business attracts more repeat customers, and you could even experience an uptick in new customers who have been made aware of your brand through word of mouth.
It may not be the most financially conscious move at first (although in some cases it is), but your company will have a far better chance of prospering when the climate and our ecosystems are in better shape.
DON’T USE HARMFUL CHEMICALS IN PRODUCTS
Along with creating longer-lasting products, you should also be making sure that any product you put out doesn’t contain toxic chemicals that could be harmful to the environment.
Levi’s, for instance, used to utilise a synthetic dye, one containing certain water-repellent short-chain perfluorinated chemicals (PFAS), that would make factory workers ill and pollute waterways in the surrounding areas. Noticing this harm, they had a third party company help them find a dye-free of PFAS, as well as any other potentially harmful chemical, that they could introduce into their manufacturing process.
Along with clothing companies, household cleaner brands have also had to carefully consider whether their products are harmful to the environment in their current forms. As a result, natural cleaning products have become extremely popular in all manner of consumers.
In fact, even the implication that your cleaning product is better for the environment will help it sell better.
SWITCH TO ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY PACKAGING
As you make your products more environmentally friendly, you should also reflect this in your packaging.
If you’ve been wrapping your products in large amounts of plastic, for instance, it may be worth considering getting rid of that plastic entirely or perhaps finding a biodegradable replacement. If you use boxes, it could be worth spending the time redesigning them to include less cardboard, and perhaps moving to only use recycled material in the future.
It may even be worth redesigning the product itself if plastic or other unsustainable materials are involved. Cosmetics brand L’Occitane, for instance, recognised how much plastic they were using for their conventional bottles, and decided to implement new environmentally friendly refill pouches for their most popular products. Using 90% less plastic than the conventional bottles, the pouches still offer the same product as the original packaging, but in a far more efficient manner.
WORK WITH SUSTAINABLE SUPPLIERS
Now, if you work with suppliers, you might not have direct oversight over various aspects of the production process. You can assess how they work before you sign a contract with them, sure, but it’s hard to tell how a supplier is actually working regularly. Considering that, we highly suggest you only work with suppliers that have a proven track record of sustainable practices.
That, of course, is easier said than done. Many large companies have committed to working exclusively with sustainable suppliers, but they tend to falter in these commitments for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, they might be flat-out lying, still prioritising cheap labour over environmentally friendly practices.
On the other, they may be serious about working with sustainable suppliers, but the suppliers themselves are cutting corners. They’ll play by the rules when eyes are on them but switch to cheaper, more hazardous chemicals, materials, and processes when no one’s looking.
Either way, just as suppliers need to commit to climate-friendly changes in their process, e-commerce companies need to regularly monitor their suppliers and ensure they’re abiding by every imposed change in processing and policy.
SWITCH TO SUSTAINABLE UTILITIES, OFFICE SUPPLIES, AND FOOD
With those larger changes underway, you should also take time to focus on how you could make climate-conscious changes within company offices—big or small.
For instance, do you think your choice of utilities and office supplies is as environmentally friendly as it could be? Are you getting sustainable, ethically sourced food for your employees? Do you end up printing a lot of documents that you could just keep saved in hard drives and online databases?
Considering the environmental ethics of office supplies may seem like a minute detail, but just think about how much you use on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. One plastic supply may not make a big environmental impact, but thousands upon thousands over time is another story. That impact, of course, shoots up as your operation gets bigger, but then, thankfully, you’ll be in a better position to correct it.
If you can afford to make these changes, start replacing your standard printer paper with recycled paper and work to phase out printing documents entirely if possible.
As you make moves to reduce environmental impact within the office, take a look at the cafeteria or kitchen and see if you’re offering the most environmentally friendly options. Switching to mainly plant-based options could go a long way to minimise carbon footprint. Also, make a point to measure your food waste, and order less food on a gradual basis until you get as close as possible to eliminating it without facing food shortages in the office.
Make a point to promote effective recycling and composting programmes as well, offering incentives to your employees if they take enough care to throw their plastic and food waste into recycling and compost bins instead of the garbage. You should also make a point to figure out how to reuse certain items that would normally get thrown in a garbage or recycling bin.
An office garden made with plastic bottles and other useful waste items, for instance, would give your employees something to bond over while sparing a not-insignificant amount of material from waste bins. In turn, you could make a point to grow fruits and vegetables that you end up eating together, reducing your environmental impact even further.
PROMOTE REUSING AND RECYCLING AMONGST CONSUMERS
After turning your attention to your offices, your next priority should be informing your customers on how to use your products sustainably. They probably have some idea of what they can do with extra boxes and plastic, sure, but offering specific ideas based on your packaging will make your customers far more likely to try them out.
If you sell shoes, for instance, you could print instructions on how to reuse the packaging right on the box. The only drawback here is that you’d end up using significantly more ink than usual, which could negate the whole purpose if the ink or its manufacturing process aren’t environmentally friendly.
To avoid that setback, you could utilise your website’s blog instead, posting articles with suggestions and instructions online and sharing them across your social media accounts. Not every customer will see this content, true, but you can strike a fine balance between optimising engagement and minimising environmental impact.
SUSTAINABLE CARBON LABELLING
In that same vein, implementing carbon labelling on your packages could do just as well to wake up your customer base and get them to be more discerning with their purchases. If they can see that your products have a significantly smaller carbon footprint than your competitors, without any reduction in quality, they’ll be more likely to pick yours.
In turn, introducing carbon labels puts the heat on other e-commerce companies to do the same. That’s the ideal, of course, though some companies will still cut corners, they’d receive far more public backlash for doing so if everyone else around them was being transparent.
The main drawback here would be the potential environmental impact that comes with adding additional labels and print to each and every package. Really, the entire effort of carbon labelling could be risky for your company until you have access to sustainable labels and ink.
Until then, you could always post the information on your product pages; that way, anyone looking to make a purchase has the opportunity to compare your carbon footprint to your competitors’ before pulling the trigger.
PUBLICLY COMMIT TO MAKING THESE CHANGES
Lastly, you could urge environmental authorities and the public to hold you accountable by publicly committing to environmental changes.
Some cynical consumers believe this only helps executives have their hero moment and forget about the issue, and in some cases, they’re right. However, ethical business leaders around the world have been rising up to actually stick to these commitments, and their dedication to the cause makes things look that much worse for companies that stay silent or act unethically.
Regular consumers can’t stand up to deceitful executives, though, and that’s where you and other honest business leaders need to come in. By collectively sticking to your commitments to protecting the climate, and calling out other companies that don’t do the same, your competition will feel not only social pressure but the all-important financial pressure as well.
Losing out on a few customers is a drop in the bucket, but missing out on key partnerships and collaborations could be a hole in the bottom that drains it.
While we wish having personal accountability was enough, the situation has become so dire that you need to actively hold other industry leaders accountable. Your customers, fellow human beings, and the planet will thank you for the effort.
COMPANIES TAKING THE RIGHT STEPS
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some case studies of companies taking creative approaches to care for the environment.
Few brands are more synonymous with the outdoors than Patagonia. Considering that, it only makes sense for them to take steps to care for the environment. In that effort, they’ve made a point to replace standard shipping boxes with thin paper envelopes. They’ve been making a point to ensure their entire packaging and merchandising operation is eco-friendly as well, putting out official proposals and plans for public viewing.
However, one area where they’re still lacking is the use of plastic. See, although they send off clothes sealed in paper envelopes, those items are still wrapped in a soft plastic shield known as a polybag. They serve well in protecting their product during shipping, but aren’t usually recyclable, especially in the US. Recognising the issue, Patagonia has publicly committed to finding a biodegradable alternative, and we imagine they’ll be able to achieve this goal soon enough.
Toms has long been a socially conscious brand, known for giving a free pair of shoes to an underprivileged person for every pair you buy from them. Now, however, they’ve dedicated themselves to being environmentally conscious as well, exercising full transparency and explaining, in detail, how they’re crafting their products and packages to be climate-friendly.
In their detailed online report, titled Sustainability at TOMS, they discuss how they’re working to use 100% sustainable cotton, cut down energy use, source all packaging from sustainable forests (and make it mostly recyclable), and introduce sustainable materials and dyes across their entire product line by 2025. They also note how they’ll be discussing their progress every year in an impact report.
Along with that, they highlight their membership in the Fair Labor Association, an organisation designed to help companies hold each other accountable to maintain ethical labour standards. They also highlight the specific factories they work with and regularly invite outside auditors to monitor their operations.
Of course, only time will tell whether TOMS actually commits to all of these changes, or whether those commitments are enough to make a notable difference. For now, however, they stand as a prominent example for similar businesses that want to commit to reducing environmental harm.
Capping off this list, EcoEnclose is an e-commerce company with the primary goal of helping other e-commerce companies be more friendly to the environment.
In case you couldn’t tell from the name, they mainly deal in the business of environmentally friendly shipping and packaging supplies. They offer nearly every type of packing material, whether it’s boxes and envelopes, void filler, or branded packages. They also make bespoke solutions for a wide variety of companies, whether you sell clothes, cosmetics, purses, soap, or CBD oil.
They aren’t the only company doing this, of course, but they’ve gone about it in perhaps the most accessible way, offering free samples of their packaging to let you see how it’ll work for your products.
We hope that more companies offering these solutions step up in the future, but until then, EcoEnclose is there to help fellow e-commerce companies care for the environment.
ENVIRONMENTAL CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE AGE OF E-COMMERCE: FINAL THOUGHTS
Making an e-commerce business environmentally friendly is no easy task, and we commend any business leader willing to put in the effort and allow themselves to be held accountable.
It may not be the most financially conscious move at first (although in some cases it is), but your company will have a far better chance of prospering when the climate and our ecosystems are in better shape. Your customers will thank you, too, and will work to protect the environment in their own lives when they see you doing the same.