Carbon Cost of Ecommerce

What's The Carbon Cost Of Your Ecommerce Store?

By Krissie • May 13, 2021

As online retailers, it's easy to feel a bit smug. We've avoided all the excess of a physical store! No heating, no lighting, no emissions from cars streaming into city centres to come and visit our shop! We pack all of our (offset) deliveries in recyclable packaging! What absolute angels...

And yet! Ecommerce has a dirty secret that more people need to know about. Your business website or online store has an environmental impact all of its own - and not enough ecommerce professionals are acknowledging or talking about this fact.

Digital environmental footprints are a factor that easily skips our mind. After all, how can something an intangible, virtual and digital have a big effect on our planet?

Each digital interaction that we initiate triggers a double drain on resources, with energy required to both run the devices we're using, and to deliver the content that we view.

Essentially, without addressing and mitigating this impact, which lies at the very heart of our business model, we'll never be quite as squeaky clean as we'd hope to be!

Ecommerce's Dirty Little Secret

While our online stores – missing out on the physical footprint of bricks and mortar properties – might seem totally intangible in terms of impact, the data centres powering them are very real – and very hungry!

How energy efficient are these centres? Well, the good news is, for as long as it remains profitable for the businesses running them to keep their energy bills on the lower end of astronomical, all measures that can help keep them efficient will be taken. Some are going as far as storage in the sea! However, once the commercial impetus beyond this point reduces, so too will the innovation.

Data centres could use as much as 3-13% of global electricity by 2030. To put that into perspective, the entire aviation industry currently generates 2% of annual human-generated CO2. Will it make you think twice before watching another silly cat video?

If the digital footprint of your e-commerce store or website hasn't been much of consideration up until now, take action to remedy that today. There are plenty of tools to help you online. We recommend websitecarbon.com, which estimates your emissions but will also give you an idea of where your website stands in terms of the emissions that others are creating.

The truth can hurt! It's not comfortable to learn how many trees would be needed to absorb the carbon released by your website each year. But perhaps that's just it - it's time to face some hard truths, and take our heads out of the sand...

Luckily, the site also offers some great advice regarding ways to start reducing your carbon impact right away. So, don't despair.

Greening Up Your Digital Marketing

You've considered the impact of your "invisible" store – what about all that "invisible" marketing your brand undertakes? That's right. Decisions to be made about digital data at every step!

We've all scoffed at the “please think twice before printing this thread” lines in email signatures (did anyone actually print out their emails?) But every time we review, view and send out an email there's a carbon cost associated. If you're marketing in this way (or putting out content on social media...) then you're having an impact.

The emissions caused by a single email are pretty tiny - each is thought to produce 0.000001 tonnes of CO2. But it all adds up. Over 64 million unnecessary emails are being sent in the UK alone. Every single day.

If every adult living in the UK sent just one fewer pointless ‘thank you’ response email a day, the cumulative action would save over 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year — that's the equivalent of 81,152 flights to Madrid or taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road.

Email marketing works – we all know its efficiency when it comes to driving sales. So are we suggesting retailers should ignore this profitable marketing channel in favour of the planet? Absolutely not. But by being more mindful of the impact that each email blast creates, we can at least start to think twice about what we send (and it we really, truly need to send it!) It also keeps us accountable to potentially offsetting the impact...

5 Simple Steps Towards a Lower Carbon Ecommerce Store

We chatted with Hey Low, a fantastic studio that helps ethical brands create amazing online experiences which are built to be low carbon, right from the outset.

They had some excellent and highly practical tips for ecommerce retailers to think about implementing. Join our MindfulCommere Community for free and find the full Q&A session inside.

If you're looking to reduce your brand’s digital carbon footprint – start here!

  1. Hosting. Your data centre

    should always

    run on renewable energy. Make this a non-negotiable element of your decision.

  2. Keep things speedy! Optimise like your life depends on it – great for you page speed, great for the planet. Compress images and upload them at the correct scale, stick to modern fonts and loads more. There's an excellent deep dive here).

  3. Efficient UX. Don't waste excess energy by keeping shoppers on your site for longer than they need to be! Give them a better path to purchase, and you'll improve customer satisfaction at the same time – double win!

  4. Keep things simple - embrace a little minimalism on your ecommerce store. Put some thought into your use of large images, especially hulking great video files. Think about the purpose you're putting them to - will they aid better purchase decisions (reducing emission-spewing returns) or are they just to look pretty?

  5. Clean up your code. Aim for hardworking, lean code across all areas of your site — say no to duplications and excessive plugins.

Explore plenty of other options for a lower carbon ecommerce store in this great article from Wholegrain Digital.

How is Shopify Helping Merchants to Keep it Green?

Shopify has been pushing for a greener approach to ecommerce for several years now, and CEO, Tobi Lutke, has long been a vocal supporter of carbon neutrality (read more about this in our guide: Why Shopify Is The Perfect Platform For Ethical Brands).

As a platform, Shopify has taken some bigs steps toward a more minimal environmental impact. While lots of these have been targeted on the more immediate impacts of e-commerce (for example, offsetting shipping emissions via the Shop app), Shopify has also done a lot to reduce the digital environmental footprint of the merchants they host, by switching their infrastructure collaboration to Google Cloud. Google Cloud runs on 100% renewable energy meaning all stores run off Shopify do so on greener energy!

Shopify often talks about becoming a "100-year company" – not companies make it into this elite club!

To make our 100-year vision come true, we need to not only make commerce better, but take better care of our planet.” — Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke (Shopify Sustainability Report 2019).

How Can Shopify Partners & Ecommerce Experts Help?

As leading experts in your field, we'd strongly encourage you to bring up the idea of digital carbon footprint with your clients. Chances are they won't have factored this into their strategy and plans, so use your position and influence to make a real difference!

Stick to best practices the themes that you develop, customise or recommend. Think about ways to keep page weight down — from your choice of font through to images. They all add up to have an impact on data, which in turn affects emissions.

Finally, just keep on making the Shopify space amazing! Shopify is doing so many good things to help keep e-commerce moving in a more sustainable direction. By helping upkeep and improve its reputation as a trustworthy, versatile platform for growing brands, the Partner ecosystem is helping to empower the next generation of ethical, eco friendly brands.

A Bright Green Future For Retail

The popularity of conscious consumerism continues to rise. As a result, an online retailer's eco-credentials are going to becoming increasingly important. If you're taking steps to reduce your impact, shout about to get the props you so richly deserve!

When brands act to minimise their digital carbon footprint, everyone is a winner. Mission-led businesses are more authentically aligned with their values and enjoy increased customer loyalty, shoppers experience more efficient online experiences, and most importantly, our planet can breathe a little sigh of relief, with every sale over the line.

Join our free MindfulCommerce Community to learn more about how other sustainable brands are working to reduce their digital carbon footprints!