Over more than a decade, there hasn’t been a day that went by without hearing the word “sustainability.” Whether it's in the news, social media, or everyday conversations, it seems that it is becoming more prevalent. Yet, it's no surprise, really! Because, in recent years, there has been a growing awareness of human activities' impact on the planet. As people become more informed about the challenges we face, there is a greater focus on finding solutions that are environmentally and socially responsible, and that can help us build a more sustainable future.
And when talking about sustainable practices, online shopping and sustainability are two concepts that may seem incompatible at first glance. After all, online shopping often involves the use of packaging materials, transportation, and energy, which can all have negative environmental impacts. Even “shopping” is based on the notion of “consuming,” if you think about it. So, the question is this: Can online shopping and sustainability coexist?
Before going deeper into the topic, let’s start with definitions.
What is sustainability all about?
One of my favorite authors and one of the greatest scientists ever, Carl Sagan, famously wrote in 1994, “The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.” He was inspired by an image of the Earth, taken from 6.4 billion km away by the space probe Voyager I. When I think about sustainability, this excerpt is one of the first things I remember.
Sustainability is about protecting the health and well-being of the Earth (“the only home we have ever known”) and its habitants - by meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In other words, it's about balancing economic, social, and environmental considerations to ensure that we can continue to thrive as a society without causing harm to the planet or future generations. Here, it is important to keep in mind that "generations" here do not only refer to future generations of humankind. We are talking about the entire species that we share on this planet.
Why does sustainability matter? And why should businesses care?
Simple: Sustainability is the key to preserving natural life and fragile ecosystems. This alone is enough as a reason why it matters.
Think about it this way - our planet has finite resources, and we need to take care of it to ensure that it can continue to support life as we know it. But currently, we are facing a lot of challenges right now, such as climate change, pollution, and loss of biodiversity. And these challenges are becoming increasingly complex and interconnected. They not only harm the planet but also have significant impacts on our economies, our societies, and our health. It might sound strange if I said climate change has a great impact on gender equity, right? What does gender equity have to do with gender equity? Well, it has so much to do. Climate-related disasters, for instance, put women and girls at greater risk of gender-based violence. And this is just one example for one of the many challenges. What I’m trying to say is that sustainability is important because it affects everything from the food we eat and the air we breathe to the jobs we have and the communities we live in.
By embracing sustainable practices, we can work towards mitigating these challenges, reducing our environmental footprint, creating new economic opportunities, improving our overall quality of life, and creating a better future for all.
So, the answer to why businesses should care is obvious: Taking care of the planet is simply the right thing to do. The way we live, work, and consume goods and services have a direct impact on the environment, the economy, and society. Businesses have a unique opportunity to make a positive impact by reducing their environmental footprint, improving social outcomes, and ensuring economic viability while also positioning themselves for long-term success in a rapidly changing world. In fact, companies that embrace sustainability can reap numerous benefits, such as:
- Increased innovation: Sustainability challenges can inspire creativity and innovation, leading to new products, services, and business models that meet the needs of a changing world.
- Regulatory compliance: Governments are imposing stricter regulations on businesses to address environmental and social issues, and companies that proactively adopt sustainable practices can stay ahead of the curve.
- Improved brand reputation: People are increasingly aware of environmental and social issues and are more likely to support companies that share their values and demonstrate a commitment to sustainability. Approximately 72% of consumers consider sustainability when making purchases. Sustainable practices can help build trust with them.
Companies walking the talk…
There are many companies out there that are doing great work in terms of sustainable practices. Here are a few examples:
The outdoor apparel company Patagonia has a long-standing commitment to sustainability, from using recycled and organic materials in its products and reducing its carbon footprint to supporting environmental activism and advocacy. Patagonia also encourages its customers to repair and reuse its products rather than buy new ones, which helps reduce waste and supports a circular economy. In addition, the company is a certified B Corp, which means that it meets high standards for social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. And it donates 1% of its sales to environmental causes and supports grassroots environmental organizations. Actually, last year, they declared that “Earth is their only shareholder” and donated all their profits to fight climate change.
FMCG giant Unilever is famous for its “Sustainable Living Plan” which was launched in 2010, two years before the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. The company has set ambitious sustainability goals and implements sustainable practices throughout its operations, such as reducing its carbon footprint, investing in renewable energy, responsible supply chains and sustainable sourcing, promoting water stewardship, and achieving zero waste to landfill. As part of their efforts, they are also striving to transform the inequities that hinder women, create opportunities that empower them and promote diversity and inclusion.
IKEA has a comprehensive sustainability strategy and has set a goal of becoming "climate positive" by 2030, meaning that it will reduce more greenhouse gas emissions than it emits. To achieve this goal, IKEA is investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency measures, as well as sustainable sourcing and waste reduction. The company also has a program called "Circular IKEA" which promotes the circular economy and encourages customers to repair, reuse, and recycle their products. Moreover, IKEA is committed to promoting social equity, and has set a goal of achieving gender equality, diversity, and inclusion.
Is “sustainable eCommerce” possible?
So, sustainable commerce and consumption are feasible, as the example above demonstrates. How about eCommerce?
While shopping online is definitely convenient, it does have some environmental impact. For example, eCommerce contributes to carbon emissions through the transportation of goods, both to warehouses and then on to the customer. Additionally, the packaging used in eCommerce can create a lot of waste, especially if it's not recyclable or biodegradable. Then there is the issue of the energy used to power data centers and warehouses and its impact on the planet. No wonder why many people wonder if "sustainable eCommerce" is even possible.
All that being said, it's important to note that it has the potential to be a sustainable business model. Even by reducing the need for physical retail space, eCommerce can actually be more efficient and produce fewer carbon emissions. What matters is to be aware of the environmental impact of eCommerce and do what can be done to minimize it, such as using renewable energy sources and reducing packaging waste by using recyclable or biodegradable materials, and optimizing their shipping routes to reduce transportation emissions.
How can you ensure sustainability in your eCommerce business?
Ensuring sustainability in your eCommerce business requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the environmental impact of every aspect of your operations. Here are some ideas about what eCommerce businesses can do to become more “planet friendly”:
- Prioritizing sustainable sourcing and production. This means working with suppliers and manufacturers who share your commitment to sustainability and seeking out eco-friendly materials and production practices.
- Reducing waste by using recyclable or biodegradable packaging materials, by offering customers the option to consolidate their orders into fewer shipments, and by implementing a recycling program for paper, plastic, and other materials.
- Promoting the circular economy and reducing waste. This involves designing products that are durable, repairable, and recyclable, encouraging the reuse and recycling of products, and offering customers the option to recycle or repurpose their old products.
- Reducing the carbon footprint of your shipping and logistics operations. You can do this by optimizing your shipping routes to reduce transportation emissions, using more fuel-efficient vehicles, and investing in renewable energy to power your data centers and warehouses. Some companies are even experimenting with new technologies like drone delivery and electric trucks to further reduce their environmental impact.
- Educating customers about sustainability and the environmental impact of their purchases.
By taking a holistic approach to sustainability, you can not only reduce your environmental impact but also build a reputation as a socially responsible business that cares about the planet and its people.
Some more great examples…
Seventh Generation is committed to sustainability across all of its operations, including its eCommerce platform. The company uses eco-friendly packaging materials, such as recycled cardboard and paper, and biodegradable packing peanuts. They also strive to minimize waste in their shipping and warehouse operations, and they offset the carbon emissions from their shipping. Additionally, Seventh Generation encourages customers to reduce waste by purchasing containers and refills for many of their products.
Sustainable footwear company Allbirds has gained popularity in recent years for their products manufactured with sustainable materials like wool, eucalyptus, and sugarcane. They also have a carbon offset program, where they offset the carbon emissions from their supply chain and shipping. Allbirds is an example of a company that has found a niche in the market by providing sustainable alternatives to traditional products.
Online retailer Grove Collaborative specializes in natural home and personal care products that are sustainable and accessible at the same time. They have a mission to offer sustainable products so their customers “never have to choose between a clean home and a clean planet.” They offer products that are free of harmful chemicals and have a refill program to reduce waste. They also prioritize sustainable packaging, using materials like recycled plastic and paper.
As a result…
Whether it's reducing your carbon footprint, using renewable energy sources, or sourcing materials from sustainable suppliers, there are plenty of ways to make a positive impact in your eCommerce business.
And who knows? You might just find that your commitment to sustainability becomes a selling point for your customers and a source of pride for your team.