Sustainability in e-commerce: strategies and tips for more sustainable online stores

Fatih-Kağan Taşkoparan

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Sustainability is in vogue and at the same time online retail is booming - isn't that actually a contradiction in terms? The younger generations in particular are supposedly very concerned about climate and environmental protection. However, they are also the ones who order the most online. One key to resolving this small paradox and using it to your advantage is to bring the two aspects together: E-commerce must become more sustainable.

Is your store ready to become more sustainable? Here you will find background information, tips and best practices for more sustainability in e-commerce.

How sustainable is online shopping really?

It starts off with a surprise: researchers at the University of St. Gallen have discovered that bricks-and-mortar retail sometimes generates significantly more CO2 than e-commerce. In a Article on the results available to Handelsblattit is noted that the study was commissioned by Amazon. However, the researchers state that they worked without being influenced.

However, the study does not take into account many factors that have less to do with climate protection and more to do with environmental protection. For example, it cannot be denied that online shopping generates considerably more packaging waste. Parcels are often padded with polystyrene or similar filling materials that are not biodegradable even after thousands of years.

For most retailers, a lot of paperwork still makes the journey to the recipient: invoices, returns slips or advertising material. For many customers, these items simply end up directly in the waste paper.

In addition, many online shoppers return a significant proportion of their orders. This is a huge cost and resource factor, especially in the fashion industry. As some of the returned goods cannot even be resold, retailers have to dispose of them. This further reduces the environmental footprint.

We can therefore conclude that Society's consumer behavior is generally not particularly sustainable. In terms of CO2balance sheet - in some respects - better than bricks-and-mortar retail. At the same time, it is a fact that online retail generates an extremely large amount of packaging waste and the numerous returns are also a problem.

Is it worthwhile for stores to become more sustainable?

In view of the broad social awareness of sustainability issues, it is obvious that companies that position themselves more sustainably and also communicate this have a strong marketing effect. This is now a factor that should not be underestimated when building a brand identity.

It is important for you not to create more appearance than reality. It is important to consistently implement targeted measures. Mere claims, prominently placed but poorly substantiated, are mercilessly punished by consumers today.

For example, building a green brand can quickly collapse if you work with dubious partners and thus give the impression that your concept is ultimately just greenwashing.

For example, if you sell goods that are produced cheaply in China and shipped with an enormous amount of packaging material, this raises the suspicion that the sustainability of your e-commerce is in a poor state. Younger target groups in particular are so attentive (and active on social networks) that such inconsistencies are quickly uncovered.

Communicating sustainability: Understatement wins

A more restrained communication of measures for more sustainability is recommended not only because of the numerous pitfalls in the wide-ranging field of sustainability, but also simply because it fits in far better with the overall ecological concept.

So make sure that you don't exaggerate with your promises regarding the sustainability of your e-commerce. A reflected statement about your own sustainability could be, for example:

If you strive for more sustainability in your e-commerce, you can not only stand out positively from your competitors. It can also be very helpful when recruiting if you build a greener employer brand. Meaningfulness and ecological awareness are decisive criteria for many talents today when it comes to engaging with employers.

Last but not least, the path to greater sustainability in e-commerce can also have a financially beneficial effect. Your customers are quite willing to accept less attractive packaging without a corporate design and added goodies if you signal to them that it is more ecological and cheaper to produce.

You can also try to sensitize your customers to send back fewer returns. This is not only reflected in your CO2-balance sheet, but also in the expenses for your returns management.

Last but not least, sustainability always means being forward-looking. It is to be expected that sustainable, climate-neutral processes or companies will soon no longer just be a voluntary role model, but could become a legal necessity. As a first mover in terms of sustainability, you can gain an ecological and economic advantage. Your e-commerce will then play a pioneering role, as you didn't just react when it became a legal obligation, but before that out of conviction.

7 tips to make your store more sustainable

Finally, we will give you a few concrete best practices to make your store more sustainable step by step. You can implement many of these measures in just a few weeks.

Tip #1: Digitize paperwork

Give your customers the option of receiving their invoice in digital form. You can also send a returns slip and promotional material in PDF format so that the parcels sent no longer include any paper documents. Ideally, it should be the default option in your store for your customers to receive the documents digitally.

Tip #2: Use and communicate sustainable packaging

If your customers order high-quality products from you, they may also expect correspondingly elegant and elaborate packaging. However, if you explain that you use recycled packaging for shipping wherever possible, many customers will most likely find this praiseworthy and understandable.

Also make your target groups aware that they can also reuse reusable packaging themselves instead of disposing of it directly in the waste paper. In this way, you can help to avoid packaging waste or give supposed waste a new use.

Tip #3: Sustainable product range

Of course, you can't change your product range overnight. But there may be a few products that can be cut in the interests of sustainability without you generating significantly less sales. Make sure that your less sustainable top sellers do not remain in the range. That would look inconsistent.

Tip #4: Check packaging sizes

A change in the product range also offers you the ideal opportunity to check the packaging sizes you have been using up to now. You probably know this yourself: Many products are sent in packaging that is too large. Filling material is often necessary to prevent damage to the consignments. Perhaps there are one or two critical items in your range that still have a lot of air left in the package. Calculate whether it is worth adding more suitable packaging formats to your repertoire.

Tip #5: Sustainable shipping options

The most environmentally friendly packaging is one thing - how it reaches the recipient is another. Rely on logistics partners such as DHL GoGreen or UPS carbon neutral. Here you even have the option of offsetting the additional costs for this CO2-neutral shipping methods to your customers by offering them as an opt-in during the ordering process. At the same time, you give your customers the feeling that they are making a small contribution to the environment when they buy online.

You can also agree with your shipping service provider that as few delivery attempts as possible will be made. Alternatively, you can advertise shipping to a Packstation and explain its ecological advantages briefly and concisely when selecting the shipping method.

Tip #6: Climate-neutral server hosting & energy-efficient hardware

Your IT infrastructure not only generates running costs, but also CO2-emissions. Work with a hosting provider that is committed to climate neutrality. You can probably also optimize your office equipment and warehouse logistics so that you use a little less energy in your daily operations.

Tip #7: CO2-Offer education & equalization

Provide information on how much CO2 emissions are generated on average when an order is placed in your store and offer your customers the option of offsetting the emissions generated directly when they place their order (similar to what Zalando has been doing for some time). In this context, you can also show what your store is already doing to reduce CO2 to generate.

If you make monetary compensation possible, you will of course need a reliable partner to support you so that the accounting works properly and the money is actually used for what it is intended.

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