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A 2022 Consumer Trends in Sustainability study highlighted one crucial statistic that is likely to resonate with all customer-facing businesses: three quarters of consumers now expect brands to do more about sustainability. Three quarters. Clearly, businesses in 2022 and beyond cannot afford to overlook their environmental impacts or ignore their carbon footprints.

But it’s not just about showing a commitment to sustainability, it’s about taking action. As individuals we can all do our bit to reduce our collective impact on the environment, but businesses can lead the way. So, in an increasingly eco-conscious world, how can your e-commerce business measure, reduce and offset its impact and help to build a more sustainable future for us all?

Cut down returns

Did you know that 1 in 5 products purchased online are likely to be returned? In the online fashion industry, that number rises even further, where a culture of ‘bracketing’ (purchasing multiple items with the intention of returning at least some of them) is driving even more returns. There’s a balance to be struck, of course; on the one hand, a simple, hassle-free returns process is likely to increase buying confidence and drive conversions, but a deluge of returns doesn’t come without a significant environmental impact, owing to an increase in delivery demands and the potential for waste.

Focusing on clear, unclouded product content (with size guides and multiple high-res images, for example) will help customers make more informed choices, reducing the return of unwanted or unsuitable purchases. But you could go a step further — like the outerwear brand Patagonia, for example — which introduced a ‘Worn and Wear’ initiative, educating its customers to care for and repair their purchases rather than returning or replacing them, extending the product’s life and reducing waste and energy consumption in the process.

Embrace new technologies

When it comes to creating a sustainable future, technology has a significant part to play: electric cars emit up to 69% less CO2 than their petrol-fueled equivalents, for example, while even farmers are investing in technologies like digital imaging and data modeling to make more sustainable choices around cropping and irrigation. But even in a business where digital innovation is already front-and-center, advances in technology can help online retailers enhance their sustainability strategies.

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One such example is cloud technology. A report commissioned by Amazon Web Services found that cloud computing (where data is hosted across interconnected servers rather than a single dedicated one) could be five times more energy efficient that an on-premises data center. And if you choose a provider that supports green efforts (Cloudways, known for its WooCommerce hosting, partnered with One Tree Planted, for instance), so much the better.

Avoid greenwashing

Defined as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image”, greenwashing is an ugly and unhelpful practice, and one that’s often easy to see right through. In its most innocuous form, greenwashing employs dubious, unsolicited claims (using vague terms like “eco-friendly” or “natural”) to give the illusion of sustainability, but it can often contain a hidden trade-off, focusing on a narrow set of ‘green’ characteristics but ignoring other, more environmentally harmful factors.

The Swedish fast-fashion retailer H&M fell foul of the former in 2019, with its newly-launched “Conscious” range promising “sustainable fashion pieces that make you look and feel good”. These unsubstantiated claims turned out to be no more than a misguided marketing tactic, and H&M was publicly outed by the Norwegian Customer Authority, who concluded that “the information given regarding sustainability was not sufficient” to warrant such assertions. Using flimsy and ambiguous language like this is classic greenwashing, and should be avoided at all costs. Talk is cheap, after all; it’s action that your consumers care about.

Use sustainable shipping practices

A large proportion of your business’s carbon footprint is likely to come from your order fulfillment process. To some extent, that’s unavoidable (since you need to physically package and deliver orders) but there are several steps you can put in place to reduce your impact and make the end-to-end process less environmentally damaging. Firstly, choose recycled (or at least, recyclable) product packaging and packing materials, and combine shipments wherever possible to reduce the number of wheels on roads.

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Secondly, check whether the courier company you use offers a ‘green’ shipping option — like DPD, for example; part of their DrivingChange commitment is to ensure that every parcel they deliver is carbon neutral by measuring, reducing and offsetting their footprint. Not only do they support renewable and clean energy production projects, but they’re increasingly investing in more electric vehicles. Partnering with a shipping carrier that focuses on sustainability will help to reduce the overall environmental impact of your online store.

Set attainable targets

When assessing your commitment to sustainability as an e-commerce business (or any business, for that matter), there’s no point in a) promising something you couldn’t possibly hope to deliver, or b) setting vague, ill-defined targets that don’t amount to anything (this leans towards greenwashing, which we’ll touch on later). No, it’s far better to set tangible, achievable goals and commit to delivering them. Even if they’re small steps in the right direction, that’s better than being excessively ambitious or downright dishonest.

Achieving sustainability won’t come without significant planning, a lot of compromise and, often, considerable costs. That’s why it’s sensible not to try and do it all at once. Overhauling your entire order fulfillment system, for example, is going to be costly and disruptive, so take it one step at a time. There might even be lower hanging fruits to focus on in the meantime; you may be able to switch to a more sustainable packaging supplier or support local environmental projects, for instance.

Offset your impact

When we refer to an organization as ‘carbon neutral’ (or even, in some cases, carbon negative), this doesn’t mean they’re producing zero emissions (that’s pretty impossible, after all), it means they’re offsetting the impact of their actions by making an equivalent CO2 saving elsewhere. By investing in renewable energy projects, conservation activities or community initiatives, online retailers can help to balance out their impacts on the environment.

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To move towards carbon neutrality, a sustainability partner like Positive Planet provides practical, hands-on solutions to support businesses in taking responsible actions to reduce their environmental impact. They can even help to certify your company as carbon neutral by carefully measuring your current footprint and offering UN-certified carbon offset programs. Becoming certified carbon neutral means the environment is benefiting, but it’s also a great way to boost your brand’s reputation among customers and the wider media.

Use local suppliers

There are plenty of reasons why it’s better to source and purchase products and materials locally than ship them from overseas. The shipping lead times will be quicker, for one thing, while you can also be more confident you’re getting a reliable and quality service with a local supplier. You’ll also be supporting local businesses and communities, something that is increasingly important to consumers, particularly in the wake of a pandemic which highlighted why we couldn’t take smaller businesses for granted.

One of the primary advantages of using a local supplier, though, is sustainability. Put simply, the less distance your products have to travel (whether by sea, air or road) the less carbon is likely to pierce the atmosphere as a result. And with 45% of UK consumers now choosing more locally-produced products in their efforts to adopt a sustainable lifestyle, your product offering will be far more attractive if it’s coming from a local source than a faceless overseas manufacturer.

In conclusion, there is a number of ways in which forward-thinking e-commerce businesses can reduce the environmental impact of their sites, from small, incremental changes to major process overhauls. Just remember, it’s important to set tangible, achievable targets and make a firm commitment to sustainability, rather than make flimsy promises or unsubstantiated claims.

Featured Image credit: Pixabay

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