How eCommerce Businesses Can Be More Sustainable

Over two billion people purchased goods or services online in 2020, according to Statista. During the same year, e-retail sales surpassed 4.2 trillion U.S. dollars worldwide. And with all of these ecommerce transactions comes real life footprints.

For retailers, eCommerce comes with shipping. And with shipping comes boxes, transportation emissions, and a lot of plastic packaging material, meaning that every one of those purchases ultimately had an impact on the environment.

Making your eCommerce business more sustainable not only reduces your environmental impact, but also helps you better appeal to sustainability-minded consumers: A 2019 study found that 80% of consumers in North America, Europe, and Asia felt it was “important or extremely important” for companies to design environmentally conscious products. 72% of study respondents reported that they were actively buying more environmentally friendly products than they did five years ago, while 81% said they expected to buy even more over the next five years. Consumers with those inclinations are more likely to buy from brands that employ eco-friendly practices.

Embracing sustainability doesn’t require you to change everything about your business, but it does require you to evolve your practices in ways that can make a difference. Here are some ways to improve sustainability at your eCommerce company.

Embrace eco-friendly shipping practices

Making your shipping process more sustainable is one of the simplest ways to reduce your environmental impact.

  • Choose recycled, sustainable packaging when selecting boxes and packaging materials.
  • Ship in bulk whenever possible.
  • Encourage customers to reuse or send back any product containers. (Offering customers incentives to return them to you — such as rewards or discounts on future orders — can spark return purchases while helping you reduce container costs.)
  • Consider making use of UPS’ carbon-neutral shipping option, which allows you to pay a small, UPS-matched-per-package fee to support projects that offset the emissions of your shipment’s transport. (You can add an option at checkout for customers to pay the offset costs if you wish.)
  • Use email-only receipts and paperless invoicing — available from FedEx, UPS, and USPS — to help you cut down on waste.

Cut down on returns

Returns and exchanges eat up a lot of transportation emissions, shipping expenses, and packaging waste. Here are some ways to reduce the number of returns your eCommerce business receives:

  • Provide clear information about your products online. (Detailed descriptions, exact sizes, and high-quality photos help add clarity for customers, thus reducing the likelihood that the products they receive are different from what they expected.)
  • Implement policies designed to inhibit customers from making large orders with the expectation of returning some of the products they receive. (Consider allowing only one order of a given apparel item at a time, for example, instead of allowing orders of it in multiple sizes.)
  • Offer small discounts to customers if they choose to waive their return option.

Stock eco-friendly products

Depending on what kinds of goods you sell, there may be a strong opportunity for you to partner with manufacturers or suppliers with sustainable practices (and advertise your business as a seller of sustainable products).

Seek out items to sell that are reusable or come in sustainable packaging, and in the case of food products, made from ingredients that are organic or cruelty-free. Consider offering items in your eCommerce store that help your customers reduce their environmental impacts, such as LED bulbs or compost bins.

Also, try to reduce the number of goods you sell that have to be imported from far-off locations. Buy goods (in bulk) from local manufacturers, suppliers, and makers whenever possible. (Check out MakersRow if you’re looking to source a U.S.-based manufacturer.)

Recycle and reduce energy waste

Being sustainable isn’t just about your customer-facing products and policies. It’s also about how you run your business. 

Internally, it’s important to make sure your business has a recycling policy in place and that employees are trained to follow it. Simple steps like investing in low-energy lighting, unplugging equipment when not in use, utilizing recycled office supplies, and keeping office temperatures low can also make a difference (and should be part of your office policies). 

And, if you’re especially concerned about your electricity consumption, look into a commercial energy audit: Your energy provider or a private company may be willing to conduct an assessment of your energy use and point out ways to improve.

Give back to the environment 

Carbon-neutral shipping isn’t the only way to offset your business’s environmental impact. Depending on your margins and your level of commitment to sustainability, there’s always more you can do to give back what you take (or contribute to sustainability-minded causes). 

You can directly purchase carbon offsets, for example, to compensate for your emissions when flying or shipping packages the traditional way. (Look for carbon offset companies that are certified by auditors or standards groups like Green-e or The Gold Standard.) You may also opt to incorporate charity into your business — perhaps by donating a portion of your profits or a cut from every purchase to an environmentally focused 501(c)(3). 

Making a Difference

Sustainability is an area where every effort counts. Being good to the environment and reducing wasteful and harmful practices is a shared responsibility of all businesses; making your eCommerce business more sustainable — no matter your starting point — is a smart commitment to the future of your company (and to the health of the planet).