Sustainable Ecommerce Website

Building a Sustainable Ecommerce Website for the Future

Ecommerce has transformed the face of retail. The old rules that defined the retailer-consumer relationship have been torn up, putting power (quite literally) into shoppers’ hands with limitless choice at their fingertips and the convenience of to-the-door deliveries.

The possibilities of ecommerce have been unlocked by digitisation, the great technological leap forward that has defined and shaped every aspect of life in the early 21st century. But the Digital Age is also increasingly being shaped by another great social awakening – awareness of the ravages of climate change, rooted in the very human ingenuity that has driven the industrial and technological revolutions.

Ecommerce might be convenient for consumers, it might have unlocked fabulous growth opportunities for retailers. But the meteoric rise of digital retail has come at an environmental cost.

As ecommerce grows, so does its environmental impact. Driven by more deliveries, more packaging, more energy consumption and data centres and more, carbon emissions linked to ecommerce will rise by 32% by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum. 

This, of course, is in the context of a major global drive to reduce emissions, to chase the agreed target of net zero emissions by 2050, in a last-ditch attempt to mitigate potentially catastrophic rises in global temperatures. Every industry, ecommerce included, has to take responsibility for creating a more sustainable future.

The good news for digital retailers is that more sustainable practices can also mean more business-savvy practices. Most importantly, it’s giving consumers what they want. According to Nielsen, almost three quarters of shoppers say they are prepared to change their consumption habits to reduce their environmental impact. More than half of consumers see a shift to eco-friendly packaging as the number one priority for making online shopping more sustainable.

Increasingly, a more sustainable approach to ecommerce means happier customers and healthier business. So let’s dive into the key areas where every ecommerce operation can make a difference.

Reducing Packaging Waste

Consumers zero in on packaging as their top environmental concern with ecommerce for good reason. We’ve all been there – a delivery arrives in a box that’s far too big for the item we ordered or swathed in layers and layers of plastic, and we wonder, why is this necessary?

Studies have shown that ecommerce generates almost five times the amount of packaging waste that physical retail does, a symptom of all those home deliveries. The most obvious solution is to switch to recycled packaging. Recycled cardboard and plastic reduces the consumption of raw materials, and therefore has a smaller carbon footprint. But one issue is effectively communicating to consumers what can be recycled, how and where. Recycled packaging that ends up in general waste brings no benefit at all.

Other options include making use of biodegradable materials where recycled alternatives can’t be found, and also reducing the amount of material used in packaging. Right-size packaging is a big trend here, making sure every item sent uses only the amount of material required and no more.

Optimising Shipping Practices

After packaging, the other major red mark against ecommerce’s carbon footprint stems from delivery and logistics.

The spike in so-called ‘last-mile’ shipping, or the local deliveries that get goods ordered online to our door, has been extraordinary in the past 20 years. Ecommerce-related transportation already accounts for 3% of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Unchecked, by 2050 that could reach an astonishing 17%.

Such an increase is based a) on demand for delivered goods continuing to rise as forecast, and b) all transport still depending on fossil fuels. Addressing the latter is a key focus not just of commercial transportation, but of transport in general. Switching to EVs will go a long way to lowering delivery-related carbon emissions.

But with demand still set to rise, there’s also a need to look at whether the logistics of ecommerce fulfilment can be done in a smarter, more sustainable way – and even look at changing some consumer expectations. Is same-day delivery really necessary, for example? How can consumers be encouraged to use local delivery points like click and collect or parcel lockers more, and thus drastically reduce delivery miles?

Shorter term, ecommerce businesses can look at choosing logistics partners based on the green credentials. Route optimisation apps and other readily available tech can also help to cut miles from delivery journeys.

Choosing Sustainable Suppliers

Packaging and delivery contribute a lot of the additional carbon footprint that ecommerce creates. But it’s far from the end of the story. If you really want to take sustainability seriously as a business, you have to factor in the products you sell.

There’s a lot to weigh up in sourcing more sustainable goods to sell. Working with local suppliers can help reduce the transport distance of goods being shipped to you, again helping to reduce your carbon footprint. But then you also have to consider where the materials used to make those products came from, whether they were responsibly or ethically sourced, and of course the nature of those materials themselves.

Ultimately, making meaningful steps towards selling more eco-friendly goods means looking in detail at the whole supply chain, and prioritising forging strong relationships with partners you can trust. The pay off is that sustainable products represent a huge growth opportunity, representing 32% of all growth in consumer goods markets from just a 17% total market share.

A great way to be sure you are sourcing genuinely sustainable products, and market your credentials to your customers at the same time, is to look for goods carrying certification marks like Fair Trade, Energy Star, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and more.

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Embracing the Circular Economy

The idea of a circular economy is essentially to minimise waste. Recycling, which we’ve touched on in the context of packaging, is a key component of a circular economy. But it isn’t the only way you can keep resources in circulation for as long as possible before going to waste. Reuse, resale, refurbishment, repurposing – terms that collectively get lumped together under the label ‘recommerce’ in a business context – all have a key role to play.

The concepts of recommerce and the circular economy are breathing new life into what we used to call second-hand retail. In the past, second hand was a thrifty option that allowed people to buy goods at reduced prices, as well as generate a little income for those selling goods they owned.

Now, recommerce is heavily associated with sustainability – and ecommerce has a major role to play. Online marketplaces like eBay and, more recently, Facebook Marketplace have long been hotbeds for sales of pre-owned items. This has morphed into a red-hot trend for recommerce-focused marketplaces – one stat suggests that these platforms are growing 20 times faster than broader retail markets.

Another interesting aspect of this trend is the fact that, rather than being all about big, centralised platforms, a lot of these take the form of existing ecommerce operators opening resale sections for customers on their sites. If you want to tap into your customers’ desire to make more sustainable choices, adding a recommerce section to your site is perfect.

Going Green with Your Hosting

Finally, we’ve talked a lot about the environmental implications of products and packaging and distribution methods. But there’s one other aspect of ecommerce that needs consideration – the website itself.

How does an ecommerce website have a carbon footprint? Websites are hosted in data centres, and those data centres consume very, very large amounts of electricity. If that electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, it means that the energy it takes to power every web page is contributing to carbon being released into the atmosphere. It has been calculated that a website that gets 10,000 page hits per month – about what you’d expect for a modest ecommerce business – contributes half a tonne in carbon dioxide emissions every year.

You can make the step to reducing this by choosing a greener web hosting service. Options include those that use data centres that run exclusively on renewable energy, or those that are using cutting edge infrastructure to reduce energy consumption. Or you can choose a hosting partner that offsets its carbon emissions.

At Key Element, we offer some big pluses in this regard. As a leading ecommerce marketing agency and ecommerce agency, we provide a full range of ecommerce website design and support services. Our hosting equipment uses renewable energy and cutting-edge infrastructure to reduce energy consumption. Additionally, we work with Ecologi, the movement to create a more sustainable web, to offset our carbon footprint and fund sustainable development projects around the world. You can read more about our work with Ecologi here.

We also specialise in Shopify development. As well as being one of the world’s biggest and best-known ecommerce platforms, Shopify has established itself as a leader in the drive towards more sustainable ecommerce, offering some of the most eco-friendly credentials in the industry.

To find out more about our ecommerce work, get in touch with our team today.

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