Sustainable Ecommerce: 7 Ways To Make The Shift


In the early days of ecommerce, most things started with the question: What’s best for the company? 

But soon, brands realized the only way to stay relevant was to become the question shifted to: What’s best for the customer? 

Today, ecommerce is evolving into something bigger and more meaningful in our lives, and sustainability efforts are moving front and center as shoppers and brands alike ask: What’s best for the environment?

For years, we’ve been throwing plastics into oceans and landfills, wreaking havoc on nature, and over-consuming to the point of waste. It’s time to admit: We’ve messed up. We need to make some changes.

The good news: Sustainable ecommerce can be good for business, too. 

What is sustainable ecommerce?

The definition of sustainable ecommerce is when an online business adopts eco-friendly practices, which can range from the materials used in product and packaging to the manufacturing and production methods for products (and much more.)

Sustainable ecommerce requires a holistic approach and thoughtful selection of policies and procedures. The ultimate goal is to embed sustainability as part of the ecommerce brand’s DNA so that the entire business takes a more thoughtful approach to operations and is always mindful of the impact it has on the environment. 

Why should you prioritize ecommerce sustainability?

If you’re wondering why you should practice sustainable ecommerce, just take a look at some of the news related to climate change and the growing waste problem within our oceans.

The situation is alarming, to say the least. According to the World Bank, the rise in waste will outstrip population growth, reaching 3.4 billion tons by 2050, increasing from around 2 billion tons in 2016. That's a 70% increase. 

It’s simple math: If we don’t change anything, we’ll be forced to reconcile this issue.

The sharp increase in the use of ecommerce in 2020 only adds to that equation. With physical stores closed and shoppers turning to online ordering during the pandemic, this means a major uptick in shipping and packaging waste. Have you given a thought where will all of the non-recycled cardboard boxes, plastic packaging puffs, and styrofoam end up? The landfill.

So what can we do? Look to sustainable ecommerce.

Newer business models like DNVBs DTCs are specifically poised to embrace sustainability, as their supply chain isn’t interrupted by a middle man and because they have more control over packaging and order fulfillment decisions.

Next, let’s look at a few additional reasons to focus on sustainable ecommerce in 2020.

Sustainability impacts purchasing decisions

Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the largest living adult generation, and they are also the world's most powerful customers. The generational shift has brought a new mindset with it as well. Today, nearly eight in 10 Millennials say sustainability is important to them.

According to the same IBM research, 57% of consumers are willing to change their purchasing habits to help reduce negative environmental impact. What’s more, 71% of those surveyed indicated traceability is very important, and they are willing to pay a premium for brands that provide it.

In short: Consumers are looking for ecommerce brands embracing environmentally-friendly practices (and they’re putting their money where their mouths are.)

Sustainable ecommerce helps future-proof your business 

Today’s buyers are looking for brands that align with their own values, which is why embracing sustainable ecommerce can help future-proof your business. 

You may think there are still not enough environmentally-aware customers, but the truth is this number keeps growing by the day. Data from Accenture shows that nearly three-quarters (72%) of respondents said they’re currently buying more environmentally-friendly products than they were five years ago. What’s more: 81% said they expect to buy more over the next five years.

In short: The new decade will reward environmentally-friendly, forward-thinking companies, putting them ahead of the competition. 

It’s the right thing to do

Put aside the business logic for a minute and think about the planet we live on. We can do better, right?

While it’s true that choosing sustainability can have a positive impact on your bottom line, customers can always tell the difference between a marketing gimmick and a genuine approach. 

That’s why sustainable ecommerce is not just a “nice-to-have.” It’s the right thing to do. We all have the responsibility to protect the environment for the sake of future generations.

The road to sustainability: 7 ways to move toward sustainable ecommerce

Over the last few years, sustainability efforts have experienced significant growth. It seems like companies have finally started to realize the importance of sustainable ecommerce, so they’re rushing to jump on the bandwagon. 

While this might seem daunting for ecommerce giants, tech-savvy DTC brands can go down the sustainability road with ease. Let’s look at seven ways your ecommerce brand can make a shift toward sustainability.

1. Reduce packaging waste

For many years, companies looked for ways to make packaging more cost-effective while maintaining its functionality: to protect the product. But not long after, companies started to realize that packaging can be so much more. We’re finally entering the stage wherein companies are taking into account the impact that product packaging has on the environment. 

Eco-friendly product packaging can be an easy first step toward sustainability. It’s time for companies to rethink their approaches and adopt more sustainable packaging options, such as:

  • Using 100% recycled materials 
  • Creating reusable product packaging to extend its lifetime
  • Optimizing the production process to reduce carbon footprint

 Numi Organic Tea is a premium, Fair Trade company specializing in unique and innovative tea blends that’s excelling with sustainable packaging.

How? They use compostable plant-based tea wrappers designed to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. These plant-based materials are completely biodegradable and have no eco-toxicity when they break down. Aside from this, they are also Climate Neutral certified, which means they measure, offset, and reduce their annual emissions footprint. Their carbon offsets support biodiversity, forest conservation, and community development in the Amazon Rainforest. 

According to their impact estimates, through thoughtful packaging choices, Numi annually conserves about 3,800,000 gallons water, 2,200 BTUs energy, 3,000 trees, and 310,000 lbs. of landfill. Not bad, right?

2. Choose sustainable shipping options

If you’ve ordered something online or watched an unboxing video, you know how much waste there is from a single order. 

Companies have limited shipping box sizes, so even if you order something small, you might receive a huge box, stuffed with plastic packaging puffs and styrofoam. That’s why each year, millions of pounds of waste end up in the landfill or the oceans.

This extends to shipping options, too. Fast or overnight delivery comes with a serious carbon footprint, and with all of the transportation (ships, trains, semi trucks, and planes) required to get products from point A to B, you can imagine the negative effects this has on the environment.

But there are better, more responsible options, such as: 

  • Using recyclable packaging materials
  • Reducing the packaging with custom-made, custom-sized boxes
  • Offering discounts for no-rush shipping 
  • Work with eco-friendly last mile carriers

One example of this executed well comes from Empathy Wines, a digitally-native wine brand that needed a versatile system to fit a variety of bottle shapes and quantities. To launch and start shipping, they decided to use Lumi’s scalable packaging system

Today Empathy Wines uses the Lumi Platform to engineer, source, and manage every piece of their scalable packaging suite — from cards and stickers to boxes and inserts. The result: More responsible shipping containers that can be recycled to produce less overall waste.

3. Create sustainable return practices

Returns are one of the biggest pain points in ecommerce. Since consumers buy items without seeing them first, they don’t know how an item really looks until they receive it. As a result, ecommerce brands can have as much as three times the average return rate compared to brick-and-mortar retailers.

Returns are a major issue: According to The Verge, five billion pounds of returned goods end up in U.S. landfills each year. The reason: Sometimes even when the product is in good condition, retailers consider it more cost-effective to throw out returned items instead of cleaning and repairing them. 

Instead, consider more sustainable return options, such as: 

  • Writing detailed descriptions on product pages to address questions customers may have that reduce the need for returns
  • Investing in high-quality product visualizations (like 3D displays, 360 degree views, and more) that give customers a clear picture of the product they are buying 
  • Donating returned products to a local charity (also a potential tax write-off)

Puffy is a California-based company committed to developing mattresses and bedroom products to help customers achieve optimal sleep. Their approach to returns is a great example of sustainable practices.

Their return policy lets customers try their mattress for at least 30 days. After that, if customers decide to return the mattress, they can donate it to a local charity and then Puffy provides the customer with a full refund. This is a great example of how a company can manage returns while helping someone in need.

4. Add sustainable products to your portfolio

For many companies, it might make sense to start producing sustainable products that can be reused or recycled. 

With ethical consumerism on the rise, you may discover a new market for your products and move forward by adding more sustainable products to your portfolio. From reusable straws, recycled furniture, to 3D-printed shoes, companies are getting more creative in coming up with environmentally-friendly solutions that customers love (and buy.)

Brita is a German company that manufactures water filters. Aside from the faucet water filtration systems, they also sell reusable water bottles with a built-in filter

To encourage customers to drink more water on the go while protecting nature from piles of plastic bottles, they’ve teamed up with TerraCycle to collect and recycle all Brita products and packaging. This way, customers can send their used Brita pitchers, dispensers, bottles, faucet systems, filters, and packaging to TerraCycle where they will be given a second life. Win-win.

5. Reduce energy waste

Let’s be honest: Most businesses refuse to take action to become energy efficient because of the substantial upfront investment required. But is that reason enough not to take action?

The reality is: Saving energy can help you cut your bills long-term and has a positive effect on the environment. It doesn’t always have to be a comprehensive energy efficiency program. 

Start small with efforts like : 

  • Installing motion detectors and timers to control facility lighting
  • Using more efficient heating, cooling, and ventilation systems
  • Upgrading to LED lighting (which use less energy)
  • Making a switch to renewable energy

Allbirds, a New Zealand-American DTC footwear company, is aimed at designing environmentally friendly footwear. 

They measure the emissions of every aspect of their business from beginning to end. They also reduce their overall environmental impact by incorporating things like natural and recycled materials into their products. 

But that’s not all: They also offset the little bit of emissions left with carbon offsets, making Allbirds a completely carbon-neutral business. Energy efficiency is an essential aspect of their sustainability, which is why they keep track of energy used throughout the manufacturing process and make it part of their brand story.

6. Partner with sustainable companies

When working in ecommerce, you can’t be a one-man-show. Even though DTC companies are in charge of many aspects of the business process, they still have to work with different companies to supply materials, get product packaging, last-mile carriers, and more.

Even though it might seem too radical to choose business partners depending on their sustainability policies, the truth is that even the slightest change can have a significant impact. Companies that work to embrace sustainability and make it an integral part of their business story pay a lot of attention to the partners they work with. 

Saltwater Brewery is one example of this. As Delray Beach's first local production microbrewery with a tasting room and beer garden on site, they use only pure and natural ingredients, and at the same time give back to ocean-based charities. 

They were the first brewery to use and implement E6PR™, which is eco-friendly six-pack rings made from by-product waste and other compostable materials, designed to replace plastic rings that damage our environment.

7. Support environment-focused organizations

There are many ways in which we can help and contribute to building a better world. However, there are also many organizations out there that are doing tremendous work, and they’re always looking for support. 

When you consider adopting one or more best practices mentioned above, don’t forget that one of the most effective ways to contribute to sustainability is to support environmentally-focused non-profits.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, promotes sustainable development, and serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment. On their website, you can see a list of accredited organizations.

Eco Roots offers the best plastic-free alternatives to everyday products. Founded by a couple in Colorado, their goal is to support a minimalist, eco-conscious lifestyle and raise awareness.

Aside from plastic-free packaging, items that support a low-waste lifestyle, and ethically and consciously sourced materials, they also donate to 1% for the Ocean. With every purchase, they’re donating a part of their sales to ocean conservancy.

Put sustainability at the core of your online business

Choosing sustainable ecommerce is much more than implementing a few quick-wins. It requires a mindset shift and a holistic approach. Here’s how you can make sustainability a part of your brand’s DNA. 

Align your brand philosophy

Adding sustainability to your brand philosophy is a sign to the customer that it is one of your core values. But remember, brand philosophy should be
more than words. The number of customers that make purchase decisions based on their values and beliefs keeps growing. That's why the story you share around your brand can be a game-changer.

Create sustainable policies

Making your goals clear and creating sustainable policies can help you achieve them. Your policies are an important part of your company culture and the way customers perceive your brand. 

Be specific. With the right policies in place, you’ll build a sustainable brand and you’ll also inspire customers and employees to adopt sustainable habits, too. The key is to have patience. Implementing sustainability policies doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s worth it. 

Use social media to raise awareness

When it comes to sustainability, consistency is the key.  Make sure to communicate the same message across different channels. 

Today, the easiest way to be heard is through social media. Communicating your sustainability efforts should go beyond buzz and promotion. You should look at social media as a way to share your brand story and encourage sustainable habits. 

Creator marketing can help you spread the message in a non-intrusive way. In the world of social media, creators are taste-makers, and they inspire millions of people. 

Data from Adweek shows that 49.3% of customers have made a purchase based on a content creator's recommendation and that 44.2% generally trust recommendations from them.

Here are a few examples of companies that leverage creator marketing in their strategy to promote sustainable habits:

Brita encourages people to reduce plastic waste and get quality filtered water

Single-use products end up stockpiled in landfills, by the sides of roads, in our parks, nature, and oceans. That’s why encouraging the use of reusable and recyclable products can significantly impact the environment. 

Brita partnered with creator @valerialipovetsky to encourage people to drink more quality water while reducing plastic waste.

Creator @valerialipovetsky shares ways to drink more waters while reducing plastic waste

Good Hemp offers seed milk as an eco-friendly alternative

When buying products, we should always think about what's right for the planet as well. Good Hemp partnered with creator @sustainably_vegan to encourage people to drink an alternative milk product that’s more eco-friendly: hemp seed milk. It’s packed full of omega 3, fiber, and protein, plus vitamins and minerals. 

This post does a nice job of showing all the benefits of the product while also offering a giveaway for the followers. 

Creator  @sustainably_vegan partnered with Good Hemp to organize a giveaway

Pro Carton promotes a recyclable product packaging 

Product packaging is a huge part of the waste clogging the landfills. Pro Carton partnered with creator @blueollis to raise the awareness of reducing ecological footprint with an eco-friendly carton board that is renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable.

Creator blueollie raises awareness about the importance of using recyclable product packaging 

Sustainability is the future of ecommerce

Companies that want to be part of the next decade should take the lead on implementing sustainable ecommerce. Beyond the fact that sustainability can drive business growth, it’s the right thing to do.

Today’s question is no longer if but how you should integrate sustainability into your strategic initiatives. Inspire your customers and your team to be environmentally-friendly and make conscious efforts to be more sustainable to future-proof your business.

Content creators can help you spread the message. Ready to step-up your creator marketing game with creative content creators? Launch your first campaign.