Green shoots

Green Shoots: Tips For Starting a Sustainable Ecommerce Brand

By MindfulCommerce • 3 May 2021

So, you're wondering how to start a new sustainable ecommerce brand.

Firstly, great! The industry is crying out for more ethically-minded individuals who are hungry to make a difference and that don't operate at the expense of our planet.

We're so glad you're here!

A quick intro: you've found MindfulCommerce! We're an online movement and community - focused on promoting and supporting the growth of a more environmentally and socially conscious ecommerce world.

If you haven't already, join our free, super supportive Community. If you're serious about succeeding, it'll be one of the best things you do for your fledgling ecommerce business - we promise!

We wrote this article in the hopes that by sharing a few simple pointers from our Sustainability Framework ⓒ, you'll be able to consider sustainability and ethics at the very start of your journey - before you make any major decisions! Tooled with these pointers, you can be certain that you're building your business on the greenest and most mindful of foundations.

Ready to get off to a great start? Amazing. Let's do this.

1. Define Your Values

Chances are, you've already given this a bit of thought - but honestly, we cannot state this strongly enough: you must define your business's core values.

Decide what underpins your desire to do business beyond turning a profit. This is what's going to get you out of bed in the morning and steer every other decision you make with regard to the growth of your operations.

When you have a clearly defined "north star" to refer to in the context of your business, every choice you need to make becomes that much easier. Simply ask "what brings me closer to achieving my goals, in alignment with my values?"

What does this look like? It'll be different for every business – only you know what makes your heart beat that little bit faster! But to give you a flavour of the kind of things you might decide up, here are some examples:

  • I want to build a business that helps bring employment to a struggling community

  • I want to build a business that counters the effects of fast fashion

  • I want to build a business that revives a dying or lost craft

  • I want to build a business that removes more carbon than it creates

  • I want to build a business that reduces the amount of post-consumer plastic reaching the sea

You get the idea. Writing out this kind of specific mission statement can be a wonderful way to achieve clarity, purpose and motivation, as you strike out on your new venture.

2. Consider Your Sourcing

At the start of your ecommerce journey, you're in a really good place to make great sourcing choices. You've actually got an advantage over existing brands here, as you get to make a totally fresh start - there are no inventory needs to be met, or preexisting supply chains to navigate.

What should you be thinking about when it comes to your sourcing? Well, we'd encourage you to see the way you source your products as an opportunity to do some good in its own right.

The way that we choose to obtain the products we sell is a big decision - and one which can do some real damage (to the planet, other communities and our brand reputation) if we're not being mindful about the way in which we approach things.

Your customers will care about the origins of your products. If you're positioning as an ethical, eco-friendly brand, but you ship in all of your bamboo toothbrushes from faceless, foreign factories with questionable working conditions, it won't take folk long to sniff out the contradiction.

Instead, see sourcing as an opportunity to add colour and emotion to your product stories. Ask yourself some of the following questions.

  • Could I stock a product that helps a community who struggles with unemployment?

  • Could I stock a product that supports the work of skilled, individual artisans?

  • Could I stock a product that is produced locally, with fewer emissions?

  • Could I stock a product that is made from sustainable materials?

  • Could I stock a product which reduces the amount of waste going to landfill?

  • Could I stock a product that is easily able to be part of the closed-loop / circular economy?

Where your product comes from and where it ends up after use is just as important as what it is when it comes to selling as a mindful retailer. So take a little time to ensure that your sourcing process is doing as much good as possible.

3. Think About Your Footprint

Again, as a shiny new business starting from scratch, you're in a great position here! You have a wonderful opportunity to set up your operation in such a way that you minimise and reduce your impact on the environment from the get-go.

When we think about our carbon footprint, often our minds go to the more physical aspects of our business (in the case of ecommerce, you might be thinking about deliveries in particular - more on that in the next section!)

However, it's really important to zoom out and look at your whole operation - both the visible and the less visible elements. The way that you choose to set up, host and design your website has a digital carbon footprint! So too does every piece of digital communication that you send (did you know the average email counts for around 4g of CO2 released?)

So, what kind of questions should you be asking to help get this right? Here's a few to start you off...

  • Which platforms are the greenest in terms of carbon neutral hosting?

  • What design decisions can I make to help ensure my store is as low-energy as possible?

  • How can I find storage facilities and warehouses with good eco practices to stock and ship my inventory?

  • Could you set up your offices to run on power from green suppliers?

To answer many of those questions, learn more about your digital carbon footprint and designing a low carbon ecommerce brand, listen to our podcast episode!

4. Carbon-Bust Your Shipping

There's no escaping the fact that ecommerce is always going to need to deal with the issue of shipping. Emissions will sadly always be generated as a result of our need to get product from our storage facilities safely into the hands of our paying customers.

As a start-up ecommerce brand, what can you do to help ensure you minimise and mitigate this impact? Happily, the answer is, plenty! Your mind might instantly leap to offsetting - and we'd always encourage you to explore that option, either absorbing the cost into your margins or asking customers to pay a levy.

But even better than carbon offsetting shipping - reduce the amount of shipping you're doing. Fewer deliveries, fewer emissions! Are we telling you to sell less? Absolutely not.

Three ways are especially effective:

  1. Take steps to reduce returns

  2. Encourage consolidated, slower deliveries

  3. Last green mile

Let's briefly unpack both strategies. To reduce the number of returns that your store generates, you need to help customers make the right choice, first time around. Here are some ways in which you can do this:

  • No free returns (because they cost the planet)!

  • Better product descriptions including clear dimensions and sizing

  • Clear product photography - including honest, customer generated images

  • Discourage the practise of buying multiple sizes and sending back all but the best fit

  • Integrate reviews to give a more rounded overview of the product i.e. would other customers recommend sizing up or down?

When it comes to encouraging people to make a greener choice with regard to the method of their delivery, sometimes a bit of education (and incentive) is all thats required.

  • Don't offer next day delivery! A bit drastic but 100% effective 😉

  • Offer green shipping at checkout, which might take longer but it's better for the planet

  • Use green icons to show that non-next day delivery is greener

  • Ask customers if they'd like to pay a little more to offset the impact of their next day delivery

  • Add messaging to your store explaining that next day delivery is harder on the planet - do they really need the parcel that quickly?

Shipping products might be a necessary evil in ecommerce, but by approaching the way you communicate the true cost of delivery to your customers, you can build a business that keeps things at a bare minimum, right from the start.

5. Pick The Right Products

Next up - it's an obvious but very important one! Pick the right products to sell in your shiny new ecommerce store! Even if you do everything else by the book in terms of running a green, ethical business, if you're selling single-use, virgin plastic, novelty straws, you're still going to be part of the problem, not the solution!

The products you sell don't necessarily need to be seen as "eco" products - obviously, you're going to sell what you want and need to sell - but you should still be making the best and greenest choices that you can within those constraints.

Think about the full life cycle of your products and what this means in terms of a reduction of their overall impact.

Some questions you could ask yourself include:

  • Is there a market for the resale of my items (circular economy model)?

  • Could I capture some of this resale value?

  • Could I offer a service to repair or renew the products I'm selling?

  • Can I encourage another use for my products at the end of their intended life span?

Increasingly, consumers are turning away from throwaway fashion and low quality, disposable items. By aligning your brand with this "quality over quantity" ethos from the very start, you'll be positioning your offering as something that little bit more special, something worth keeping, sharing, repairing and loving for a long time.

6. Nail Your Messaging

Finally, getting the word out. As a new brand, you've got a big first impression to make - and as we all know, first impressions count for a lot!

People will want to understand what your brand is all about, and unfortunately, with the practice of "greenwashing" so wide spread (especially amongst the bigger brands, it has to be said!) many consumers are quite wary of an "eco" or "ethical" marketing position.

The key here is transparency. It's absolutely vital to make sure your audience can see straight to the heart of your actions and intentions. Show them the full picture - the things that you're doing really well, and the areas in which you still need to make some improvements. This element of candour and authenticity is essential when it comes to building a brand that is truly in step with its customers' values, meeting and exceeding all expectations.

The other big benefit to shouting loud and proud about your efforts to do better? You'll fly the flag for other online retailers to raise their game too! The more visibility mindful ecommerce gains, the better established the concept becomes - and that can only be a good thing, for brands, consumers and, of course, our precious planet.

Best of Luck With Your New Ecommerce Adventure!

We hope the above points have given you plenty of food for thought when it comes to getting ahead of yourself planning your sustainable ecommerce brand. It's a very exciting time to be getting into the game, and there's really so much potential and passion within the space - you'll be in excellent company.

For more help, support and advice from brands just like yours, who are a little further on in terms of their ecommerce journey, we'd love to invite you to join the MindfulCommerce Community.

This article was a teaser of The MindfulCommerce Sustainability Framework. So if you'd like more tips, real life case studies and direction to people who can help on your sustainability journey, download the Framework here.