November 4, 2021

Your Ecommerce Sustainability Checklist

Dr Peter Mowforth

Packaging

This is one of the quickest and easiest ways for your ecommerce business to make a difference. Avoid the use of plastic or polystyrene filler and, wherever possible, source recycled biodegradable materials. One of the biggest changes is to consider using the simplest and smallest amount of packaging that is sufficient to protect your products.

Automated packaging systems such as the CVP Impack use smart software to automatically calculate the minimum amount of packaging material for each individual package. The system uses fit-to-size auto-packing technology which saves up to 20% on cardboard and eliminates the need for void fill. The system then automatically creates exactly the minimum size of packaging material and uses a robotised system to complete the packaging task. This type of technology not only reduces waste but saves money by requiring less packaging material. It’s also claimed to reduce shipping costs by up to 15% through reduced package size and weight.

Along with associating plastics with ocean pollution, a recent report shows that almost 60% of consumers say they are less likely to buy a product in harmful packaging. Consumers who associate plastic with being harmful cite it as being 80% more harmful than metal.

For small ecommerce traders there are a wide range of recycled packaging materials from suppliers such as DavPack, Acopia, Ecoenclose and Eco-Craft.

Choose environmentally-friendly courier partners

Consider using a courier that is investing in electric vehicles. For example, DPD is changing it’s transport fleet across the UK to use electric vehicles.

Zero emission vehicles from all the main couriers are increasingly being used - particularly for the last few miles of package fulfilment. DPD claims the largest (700+) electric fulfilment vehicle fleet in the UK.

In October 2021, Royal Mail opened a new all electric vehicle hub in Glasgow for the local delivery of mail and packages. The centre is based in Govan, just across the Clyde from the Cop26 event.

Finally, when interfacing with couriers, be sure that you have optimised your software so that your orders are correctly consolidated so as to minimise the number of journeys made.

Improve Productivity

Do everything you can to automate the business.

Improving your productivity will reduce your overall carbon footprint by avoiding waste. While electricity bills may increase, these costs are more than offset by those of reduced staffing and improved efficiency.

Because of the increased need for sustainability, companies might consider taking input and suggestions from all staff to contribute to ‘greening the business’. This in turn helps propagate the need for individuals as well as businesses to take responsibility for reducing waste. When done well, this approach is likely to improve productivity and profitability as a win-win for all. An example of change that we know being adopted by local ecommerce businesses include offering staff incentives to cycle to work. Home working, when backed by good IT infrastructure and tools, can also lead to higher productivity - in part by reducing the need to commute.

Hosting Supplier choices

An average website produces 1.76g of CO2 for every page view, so a typical ecommerce website with 100,000 page views per month emits 2,112kg of CO2 every year. Key steps that you can take to reduce your carbon footprint without harming your business are:

  • Minimise webpage size by optimising images and simplifying code. Core Web Vitals is the approach you need to follow if page size optimisation is your goal. The case for doing this is compelling in that you will get improved conversion (due to faster load times) and improved marketing (due to better SEO).
  • Use a hosting supplier that is committed to adopting renewable sources of power directly or by using carbon offsets.
  • Offset hosting electricity usage using your own renewable electricity sources

Amazon has just announced that it has opened its first wind farm in Scotland based on the Kintyre peninsula. Amazon is purchasing 100% of the power output from this new 50MW wind farm, which is expected to deliver 168,000MWh of clean energy annually.

Reduce Returns

Returns are wasteful. It’s estimated that up to 30% of all online products get returned. Around 20% of these returns are because of damage while the remaining 80% are mostly because the product looks different to what was expected or is the wrong size. Clothing shows the highest ecommerce return rates (up to 45%) while items such as furniture, appliances, Healthcare, books and games are typically less than 10%. The clothing sector is by far the worst for returns; Nosto claims that 19% of clothing customers deliberately order multiple variations of a single item (such as different colors or sizes), to then choose the item that suits them best with the rest returned.

You can reduce returns by providing as much detail as possible in the product description. Adding as many good quality photographs of at least 1000*1000 pixels will also help. Including a link to a video showing the product alongside familiar objects such as people or hands allows the customer to better understand exactly what they are getting. Unboxing videos also assist return rate reduction.

If you are selling into overseas markets, ensure that you are using country-appropriate sizes - i.e. don’t use UK shoe sizes for Europe or metric measures for the US. For clothing, explain what size the model is. Retailers can even go one step further and implement augmented reality tools such as ASOS’s ‘See My Fit’, which allows customers to virtually see the item on different body types and heights.

When customers ask questions about the product that help them with their selection choice, be sure to add the question and answer information back into the product description. If it’s a good question then it’s likely that others would appreciate the detail. This not only reduces returns but may also improve other factors such as SEO.

Parcellab has proposed stopping the use of free ecommerce returns. Their argument is that it actively encourages people to order items that they have little interest in buying. If they are then free to return the products there is no incentive to not order them in the first place.

Product Selection

Wherever possible, choose products to sell that are ethically sourced from a trusted supply chain that is able to minimise pollution and avoids the use of plastic. If more trading businesses do this it will pressure manufacturers to supply greener products. There is significant evidence that, given a choice, the majority of customers will select products that are both ethically sourced and better for the environment.

Supply chain distances

If you are able to source products from local suppliers then do so. Let your customers know you are doing this and why.

A large US study claims that 64% of manufacturers indicate they are "likely to extremely likely" to reshore in future and that nearly half of buyers (46.7 percent) actually "rarely or never" prefer to source globally at all. With long-distance container costs skyrocketing, sourcing locally made products is on the increase.

Incentivise customers

Independent research has shown that 81% of buying customers prefer to purchase sustainable products. Consider adding sustainability incentives such as planting trees when customers buy your products using services such as MoreTrees or TreesForLife.

Avoid waste

It’s claimed that 25% of returned ecommerce products get thrown away. Avoid this by recycling returned products on marketplaces such as eBay. Amazon reports thousands of Pounds of goods each day are destroyed when they get returned.

Product manufacturers carry a major responsibility to avoid waste. While it is admirable that Google’s new Pixel 6 Pro comes in a minimal recycled box made of recycled cardboard with almost no plastic in sight, the initiative then gets lost when the package includes an unwanted and unnecessary pair of Bose 700 headphones. Next time, Google might consider a tick box to skip the headphones and offer to plant a few trees instead.

Communication

Once you have taken measures to improve the sustainability of your products, be sure to let customers know what you have done. Invite your customers to provide you with feedback if they can see ways of making your business more ecologically sound.

What is clear is that each and every one of these points is not only good for the environment, each is also good for business. What is required though is deep and fundamental change by both suppliers and customers alike. There is a clear responsibility on business to use a checklist such as this to work through each and every part of its operations to identify and then correct those items that damage the environment.

Note: This post is limited to the business issues that can lead to a decreased carbon footprint for an ecommerce business. It does not address the broader issues around whether or not customers should be purchasing the products in the first place. If products are deemed necessary, try to avoid express delivery which usually has a higher carbon footprint than standard delivery.

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