The pandemic turned life as we knew it on its head. While many industries really suffered the effects of Covid-19, ecommerce has come out ahead of the game. Not only was high street custom been pushed online, but many brands which operated in a solely offline capacity for years finally made the leap to online retail.
The boost that the sector has seen as a result of brick and mortar stores being forced to close has been transformative. The industry is thought to have accelerated by up to five years in terms of growth. Influenced by this rapid expansion, as well as the general impact of big changes we all saw to our way of life, the ecommerce audience has also evolved.
Today, online shoppers expect more from the brands that they buy with. Value, service, delivery times: all important. But so too are values. In fact, 71% of consumers prefer buying from brands aligned with their values.
In this article we'll dig into the emergence and growth of sustainable ecommerce, and examine the six areas that you can focus upon to make sure your own operation is keeping up to speed with this new, growing demand for greener, kinder commerce.
Sustainable Ecommerce: Good, Green & Growing
Sustainable ecommerce means more than just switching your packing materials to recycled cardboard. The values and strategies that underpin sustainability form a core component of the messaging and brand position of many of the world's biggest modern brands. Marketing teams around the world have woken up to the power of the eco-friendly angle, and every new store that launches seems to have an element of social enterprise baked into its brand story.
One thing is crystal clear: you don't need to be "an eco brand" (selling bamboo toothbrushes etc) to be doing your part for sustainability. Increasingly the expectation that you'll do this as a default is becoming more established. It's not just a case of box ticking to fit a modern trend or passing fab. There's a real consumer appetite for this kind of values-led, ethical commerce – and as consumption continues to increase, our planet needs us all to come around to a sustainable way of thinking.
If you're not making the effort, your competitors probably are. Time and time again, people have proven their tendency to choose brands that align with their values - and those that go against the grain can expect to feel the impact in their bottom line - just under half of online shoppers claimed they'd refuse to purchase products and services from a brand that went against their personal values.
Here are six ways to start making improvements to your brand in this increasingly important field right away.
Consider The Bedrock Of Your Business
If you're serious about making your ecommerce business truly sustainable, you need to build from a rock-solid base. This is about more than customer-level optics - you need to make sure you're getting out of bed every morning for the right reasons!
Consumers are increasingly switched on to the "behind the scenes" areas of your operation with regard to the values that they hold. What are your brand's foundations rooted in? Yes, we all need to make money at the end of the day (and support our employees and their dependants with a reliable, safe job!) but by aligning your brand with a mission-led purpose, or clearly defined values that aim to benefit those beyond your immediate stakeholders, you'll be following in the footsteps of many leading brands.
From the way you choose to sell, through to the retail models you adopt - every decision has an impact. Are you leaning hard upon slashed prices and flash sales, promotions that encourage overconsumption? While these have always proved popular and effective, they're increasingly falling out of favour with the buying public. Many major brands are abandoning Black Friday for ethical and ecological reasons - something which wins them fans and helps cushion the blow of fewer shopping event sales. The popularity of circular and sharing economies is also starting to rise.
Key Takeaway: Define your values and your goals. Your business operation needs to tally with the public-facing actions you take.
Take A Long, Hard Look At Your Sourcing
What are the products your business is built upon? Without addressing the sustainability of the items you're selling, you're always going to struggle to make significant changes to the impact of your business. This isn't about selling "eco" products - we know that not every business will actively position itself and its buying strategy around this (however nice it would be!) It's about making sure you're making the best choices you can, given your circumstances.
You'll find that shoppers are increasingly interested in the provenance of the products that you offer. For this reason, being really open and transparent about your supply chain is a great idea. Many brands will make this an element of the brand story that they put out and tell across dedicated sections of their website, social media etc.
A product's creation can be a powerful marketing tool, and this can really add to their perceived value. If there's a way that you can do some good via the way that your products are created (for example, having them made by local artisans, supporting traditional methods or bringing work to areas that are struggling) you instantly have an advantage over a commercially produced rival.
Take time to thoroughly map out your supply chain, and look for any areas (however small) where you could make a tangible improvement. Small adjustments are better than nothing here. We appreciate that supply chains are complex, and big shifts don't happen overnight. But small steps in the right direction all add up!
Key Takeaway: When you sell products that you can feel genuinely proud of, you open up a great opportunity for storytelling to better engage your customers.
Address The Day To Day Running Of Your Business
When it comes to growing a truly sustainable operation, we're looking for action at more than a consumer or product-based level - just running your business has an impact on the planet.
Most of us are aware of the concept of carbon footprints by now, but most forget that emissions aren't just created by the physical elements of your business, such as shipping. Our digital activities also carry a carbon cost!
Your website may feel like a "virtual" asset, but it is kept running by very physical data centres, and they're incredibly resource-hungry! It’s been estimated data centres could account for as much as 3-13% of global electricity use by 2030. For comparison, the aviation industry currently generates 2% of annual human-generated CO2 - so we're looking at a really sizeable impact! Learn more here.
What can you do to address this element of your impact? Offsetting is a great place to start. You might also switch to green energy suppliers for your offices or storage facilities. Additionally, hosting your ecommerce store on a platform that's carbon-neutral, such as Shopify can be a really good move. Design your stores in a more mindful way with regard to data and power consumption - could you reduce use of video or images? Learn more about the carbon cost of email, and think more about the way that you (and your marketing team) communicate digitally.
Key Takeaway: Running your business carries a carbon cost - and this goes beyond the tangible, physical activities and properties. Get a handle on your digital carbon footprint.
Dial Back Your Deliveries
When it comes to ecommerce, delivery is always going to be something of a necessary evil. We all need to get those products from A to B to customer. This makes it even more important for brands to take care to reduce the impact that their fulfilment processes generate, wherever possible.
Delivery is where most ecommerce retailers looking to polish their halos step things up in terms of sustainability. It's a nice, customer-facing PR play, so many see it as a safe ROI - switching to recycled packaging and releasing many self-congratulatory press releases as a result. Eco packaging and offset deliveries are fantastic and should be cause for celebration – but the fact remains that this is just scratching the surface of what's really needed.
In addition to working with better packaging and offsetting the emissions your deliveries cause, think about ways that you can reduce deliveries at source. Reducing the number of returns your store generates is an excellent place to start - reducing the miles a parcel travels, but also creating a better experience for the customer. By providing better product descriptions and images, customer reviews, AI-powered fitting rooms etc, you can improve the chances of shoppers getting it right first time.
You could also look at the way you position next day delivery. Many consumers won't think twice about claiming this if it's cheap or even free - but it's seldom the best choice for the environment. Educate your customers about this - disincentivise next day delivery, or see if they'd like to offset the additional impact it causes.
Takeaway Point: Mitigating the impact of delivery is great - but go one better and reduce the number of deliveries that happen in the first place via consolidation and fewer returns.
Pick Products That Are Part Of The Solution
Sourcing your products is one thing - but selling something that might actually make the world a better place helps amplify the positive impact you can have! You could run the greenest operation in the world, but if you're still peddling cheap, throwaway items that harm the planet and create excessive waste, your whole operation is conflicted.
What does the future look like for the items you sell? Are they being purchased in a mindful, purposeful way? Or will they be thrown away in a matter of weeks, or even days? Can they be recycled? Is there an opportunity for resale? Could they be resued in some way beyond their initial purpose? What steps are you taking to encourage your customers to take these kind of actions?
Your products have potential value beyond their initial sale, and younger generations especially have woken up to the opportunity of the "preloved" market. Brands are also catching on, in a move that benefits both their bottom lines and the planet. By integrating an app such as Recurate into your store to add a white-labelled resale marketplace, you can help recapture a portion of the product resale value, while lending credibility to the reseller's listing.
Brands that position their products as something worth looking after, repairing and retaining are increasingly common. Life-extending product services, especially amongst high-end brands, help products feel elevated, offering higher quality. The Queen's favourite, Barbour, are a great example of this.
Takeaway Point: Think about the whole lifecycle of your products - don't wash your hands of responsibility as soon as they are sold.
Keeping Communication Clear
So, you've made some brilliant, planet-saving choices and changes... Now its time to tell the world!
This is not about blowing your own trumpet (okay, it's a little bit of that - but you've earned it!) It's more about letting everyone (or at least as many people as possible) know about the changes you've been making and why it matters.
By leading from the front and setting a great example, you pave the way for other brands to up their game too. And by keeping sustainable, mindful commerce at the forefront of your customers' minds, you encourage them to make more considered choices about who they decide to shop with in the future.
Being totally open and transparent is key to your messaging. Say it like it is: describe the steps you've taken, and why - and don't be afraid to highlight the areas where you know you still need to make a few changes. Conscious consumerism is a huge deal, but people are highly attuned to greenwashing (where a company presents a few token eco-friendly acts whilst continuing to make a largely negative impact on the planet.) Avoid this by being completely open in your messaging.
You might like to start producing sustainability reports to show the improvements your brand is making year on year. While we could always be doing more, progress is progress, and it's great to be able to show this clearly through annual data. Some brands have entire websites devoted to their commitment to do better – here's an example from Gap.
Key Takeaway: Talk openly and honestly about what you're doing - inspire others to ip their game, but keep things transparent and relatable.
Get Ready For The Rise & Rise Of Sustainable Ecommerce
We truly believe that the future of ecommerce lies in sustainability. Things really can't afford to go any other way, especially as the sector continues to grow. Hopefully this article has got you thinking - not just about the good that you could do, but also about the benefits that could come to your business as a side effect.
The demand for ethical, eco-friendly, mindful retailers is only going to increase over the coming years, and the brands that will excel will be the brands which are ready to meet this demand head on.
Don't get left behind. The MindfulCommerce community offers support, resources and solidarity from other ecommerce retailers who are also trying to make real changes to the way that they operate, promote themselves and market their offering. It's free to join and you'll have access to a wealth of helpful information, events and more to help you start your journey towards a greener, brighter future.