How to build a sustainable eCommerce business
This post was last updated on November 4, 2022.
Small retailers tackling global climate change can seem like a David-and-Goliath matchup. But big challenges bring big opportunities, and as consumer demand grows for environmentally sustainable options, businesses of all sizes are joining the fight.
In fact, a commitment to the environment is no longer an optional extra; your brand’s success increasingly depends on it. Embracing eco-friendly practices can help to earn shoppers’ trust and deliver significant impact to your bottom line.
Revamping your eCommerce branding to center sustainability is an important first step, but it can’t be the only one. Retooling your eCommerce offerings can reduce the impact of fulfillment and returns, while foundational changes to sourcing and production methods can achieve even greater sustainability gains.
Why you should adopt sustainable eCommerce practices
It’s hard to ignore that many consumers now expect brands to demonstrate leadership when it comes to environmental and social causes. This high expectation can lead to high rewards for companies that authentically commit to earth-friendly practices.
On a fundamental level, demonstrating support for causes that shoppers care about can establish brand trust. In fact, 58% of consumers choose brands based on their beliefs and values, Edelman found. And, 68% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products, according to a Wharton School of Business survey. The percentage has increased 17% since the pandemic.
Beyond satisfying consumer expectations, adopting sustainable practices can boost your bottom line by introducing new operational efficiencies and reducing waste—the idea being, focus on sustainable business practices now to benefit even more in the future.
How to build a sustainable eCommerce business: 4 quick wins
You don’t need to overhaul your business from top to bottom to start reducing your environmental footprint.
“Sometimes the hardest part is getting started,” admits Dane Baker in an interview with Wix. Baker is the founder and CEO of EcoCart, a software that helps eCommerce companies calculate, minimize, and communicate their efforts when it comes to their ecological impact.
“Look for ways to implement sustainable changes that don’t require you to completely change your business model," he says. "This could be sustainable packaging, utilizing carbon offsetting, or setting up a recycling program to handle the proper discarding of your products. Starting slow and making changes that you can maintain is the best way to build a sustainable brand.”
01. Prioritize efficient delivery
The need for eCommerce speed is well-documented: nine in 10 consumers now expect free delivery within two to three days, reports McKinsey. But catering to that expectation has a high environmental cost, as it prevents carriers from consolidating orders into larger shipments using fewer trips.
Currently, the World Economic Forum estimates that growing demand for fast “last-mile” deliveries from transit hubs to doorsteps will result in 36% more vehicle traffic by 2030.
The good news? Calling out the environmental benefits of going slow can change consumer behaviors. In one trial, 71% of shoppers chose slower shipping when its impact was expressed in terms of the number of trees saved.
Try highlighting standard ground-delivery options with an eco-friendly icon or badge and a pop-up explanation. Consider promoting store pickup as the most environmentally-friendly option for shoppers who need items quickly. And ship orders for home delivery from the nearest store locations to reduce carrier transport miles.
Finally, encourage shipping efficiency by grouping products together. Offer bulk order options for replenishment items, and sell smaller items in packs or sets to encourage fewer but more substantial shipments.
02. Opt for eco-friendly packaging
Containers and packaging make up 28% of all consumer waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Most paper and cardboard packaging is recycled—compared with just around 14% of plastic—and shipping materials like bubble wrap and plastic film wrap aren’t recyclable.
Switch to eCommerce packaging that’s easy to recycle, and label it as such to reduce environmental impact. Wix merchant and brainchild of Jason Momoa, Mananalu, aims to “unplastic” the planet. Mananalu sells its water in recyclable aluminum bottles, and devotes its online store to educating consumers on the impact they could make.
Alternatively, explore returnable or reusable packaging. Offer rewards to customers who return packaging for refill or recycling. Think: Nordstrom’s BEAUTYCYCLE program, which aims to recycle 100 tons of beauty packaging by 2025.
03. Reduce preventable returns
More than one in five eCommerce purchases are returned (see our guide on what is eCommerce), according to a National Retail Federation report, and they aren’t just a drag on the bottom line. They exact an environmental toll, too. Merchandise takes an extra trip back to your store or distribution center, adding return packaging and transit miles to the equation.
To make matters worse, up to a quarter of returned items end up discarded rather than resold, says NPR.
The best way to reduce the environmental footprint of returns is to prevent them from happening in the first place. Provide comprehensive product details up front to help shoppers pick the right items the first time, especially when it comes to fit and sizing.
A report by logistics technology provider Narvar found that more than half of online consumers practice “bracketing”—purchasing items in multiple sizes or colors with the intention of returning those that don’t work out. So, it’s wise to invest in tools that help shoppers select the right size and style prior to checkout.
For example, AR or 3D images can help shoppers to better envision products up close.
Meanwhile, size recommenders like MySizeID can help shoppers determine which apparel is right for them. Or, access to live chat (like Wix Chat) and style consultations can help to resolve product questions.
Consider optimizing how-to videos, setup manuals, technical specs, and clothing care label information as well to help your shoppers out.
04. Center promotions and loyalty rewards on green choices
Don’t just offer sustainable options. Incentivize customers to take advantage of them with strategically crafted promotions and a cohesive sustainable marketing strategy.
For example, encourage shoppers to choose slower delivery methods by offering a “punch card” system that unlocks special perks after a set number of eco-friendly shipments. You could also reward points to loyalty members for returning containers that are recyclable.
Take a page from Staples’ strategy: the company offers its loyalty members $2 in credit per ink or toner cartridge returned online or in stores. In addition to this, Staples offers free recycling for electronics and rechargeable batteries to reduce waste.
As another example, Baker recommends being vocal about your green practices, especially during the holidays.
“We’re encouraging brands to celebrate Green Friday instead [of Black Friday], by having a sustainability sale," he says. "This means offering carbon-neutral products in lieu of a traditional 50% off sale. Consumers have grown numb to Black Friday discounts, so by participating in Green Friday, brands can help our planet while standing out from their competitors."
Long-term changes for making a long-term impact
On top of notching immediate sustainability wins within your existing business, consider tackling a few long-term challenges that could open up new opportunities for customer engagement and revenue.
Source sustainably and transparently
Consumers increasingly want to know that raw materials used in products are sustainable, and that production methods are socially responsible: 29% of U.S. shoppers say they always prioritize ethical sourcing, reports OpenText.
If you’re able to build more sustainable products, make sure to showcase your efforts on your online store. Profile artisanal producers, list production methods, or show third-party credentials and certification from trusted authorities to back up your claims.
For example, “B” Corp Certification is awarded to companies that meet multiple standards for social responsibility, sustainability, and accountability. In the apparel industry, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) signifies that fabric was produced in accordance with strict environmental and social standards.
Mananalu for its part dons several badges on its homepage, underscoring its commitment to removing single-use plastics.
Create products for a “cradle to cradle” lifespan
Another way to support sustainability is to prioritize durability and reusability, i.e., selecting easy-to-recycle materials and constructing for quality rather than the lowest cost.
This ethos replaces a “cradle to grave” one-time product lifespan with a “cradle to cradle” cycle. The latter encourages product circularity, whereby products are specifically designed to reduce waste and reuse as many recycled resources as possible.
While this principle may seem difficult to apply to low-cost, commoditized products, the boom in bamboo toothbrushes and sustainable underwear suggests that it’s far from impossible.
03. Repair, refurbish, resell
Help shoppers maximize the value of their purchases by nurturing long-term ownership. Classes and workshops can help customers make the most of their goods, while upgrades, repairs, and refurbishment services can extend the life of products.
Offering resale services is a bigger step, but one that has huge potential in the years ahead. U.S. resale is set to grow more than 150% to top $330 billion by 2030, according to resale site Mercari’s Reuse Report. And more than four in five consumers already buy second-hand goods, research shows.
You can strive to provide a platform for peer-to-peer resale. Alternatively, help buyers manage reselling themselves by providing a stamp of authenticity and/or customer support for these efforts.
For instance, Patagonia offers repair services as well as a trade-in program through which customers can earn store credits when they return used items.
Go green in stores
If you have physical stores, explore ways to minimize their environmental impact. A few ideas: boost energy efficiency, use green materials for remodeling and construction projects, or encourage paperless point-of-sale transactions.
Psst. Wix’s POS system makes it easy to sync in-store sales with online ones, so you can avoid any inventory mix-ups or disruptions between channels. Store locations can also serve as support hubs for local environmental causes. Store staff can direct in-kind or cash donations to community organizations and participate in restoration and cleanup projects as volunteers. Subsidies for store workers to commute to and from the store using environmentally-friendly transit options are another way to manifest brand sustainability.
Start your sustainability journey today
When it comes to environmental responsibility, even small changes can inspire big wins. As you embrace eco-friendly practices, you’ll not only meet customer expectations and improve your bottom line—you’ll create a more sustainable future for your type of business and the planet.
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Editor, Wix eCommerce
Allison is the editor for the Wix eCommerce blog, with several years of experience reporting on eCommerce news, strategies, and founder stories.