Ecommerce’s Sustainability Problem Needs to Be Addressed

Shopping cart entwined with plants on green background among hangers. Sustainable eco lifestyle.

By Andrew Turner, UK Managing Director at Incubeta

Questions around sustainability in the retail industry have been asked for a long time. This has led to many big-name high street brands, like Primark, making commitments to increased sustainability. However, in July this year the UK’s competition watchdog, the Competition and Market Authority (CMA), launched investigations into claims that three major retailers in this sector had made misleading claims about the sustainability of their fashion products.

In this case, the concerns centred around the use of vague language, which may have suggested that the collections were greener than they actually are. The CMA’s move to investigate these three brands is part of ongoing concerns around “greenwashing” (when retailers brand something as sustainable when this is not the case) in the fashion industry. The CMA’s concerns have been confirmed by a recent report by the Advertising Standards Association highlighting that there is deep confusion among consumers around the meaning of ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’.

While there are very public concerns about the way that some retailers are marketing their products, there is one area of sustainability within this sector that often goes under the radar – and that’s ecommerce.

Grass isn’t always greener

The general belief is that the huge growth in ecommerce is not only greener but that it actually comes with no real cost to the environment. In fact, many people believe that moving their purchasing online has a number of positive effects on the environment, such as the reduction in emissions from not having to travel to stores and the energy costs to run a physical store. While accurate, it also needs to be known that the energy required to power our global use of the internet rivals the carbon generated by the airline industry. That’s even before we take into account the environmental impact of packaging, deliveries, and returns that ecommerce generates.

Every single click on a website is responsible for a tiny volume of carbon emissions. And, with literally billions of ecommerce-related clicks taking place every day, these tiny emissions can quickly add up to a massive environmental issue that online retailers need to get to grips with.

Thankfully, there are a number of steps that ecommerce brands can take to help improve their environmental strategies, but they do require a shift in mindset.

For the bulk of digital marketers, the focus has traditionally been on getting as many people onto their sites as possible. Any interest in sustainability would simply be about creating a carbon offset programme to negate this impact. Today, that needs to change and we should, instead, be looking to mitigate and reduce the volume of ecommerce-related emissions at the web design and development stage.

This can be achieved by marketers implementing strategies that aim to optimise the user experience (UX). These strategies will not only benefit conversion and profitability, but will ultimately support lower-impact internet usage, thus reducing carbon emissions. It is likely we will see these techniques implemented more within the coming years, as the industry aims for further its environmental progression, and marketers begin to view carbon output as a benchmark for success within their campaigns.

Fortunately, the needs of customers and the environment are in close alignment. A growing focus on UX means that brands are increasingly looking to enable visitors to achieve whatever they want by clicking less and by spending less time on a website. Finding ways to keep people on site for as long as possible and viewing as many pages as possible is a thing of the past.

More eco-friendly approach to shipping

Since the pandemic, people’s buying habits have changed significantly. We are now buying more online, but we are also making more online purchases from the same stores in separate visits.

We need to no longer be entrenched in the “want it now” mentality that a lot of ecommerce has fostered over the years. Not all consumers want delivery of the items they purchase online as quickly as possible, indeed many are happy to wait longer for particular items. To provide a more sustainable ecommerce solution, businesses should provide a range of options for delivery, including longer delivery times that allow items to be ‘bundled’ together to reduce the number of individual delivery journeys. Offering in-store pickup or delivery to lockers where customers can collect items at a convenient time are also important options.

Changing opinions

Environmental issues are becoming increasingly important to consumers and there is a growing trend towards conscious consumption, with people demanding more sustainable options from brands. With more than a third of global consumers willing to pay more for sustainability, ecommerce brands can benefit from being totally transparent about why they are providing different shipping, delivery or returns options. By spelling out the environmental impacts associated with each option, they can empower the customer to make more eco-friendly choices.

Equally, ecommerce brands in the fashion sector need to move swiftly if they aren’t already making these changes so as not to get caught either in a consumer backlash or in the inevitable legislative clampdown around sustainability.

In short, ecommerce brands can significantly reduce their carbon footprint by optimising their websites and by making their shipping options more transparent. If marketers truly want to strive towards a more sustainable future, they need to ensure they’re not only providing traffic that is high in value, but are also implementing techniques that truly optimise the user journey. Only then can they ensure they are attracting customers who are going to be using their services, while producing as little carbon as possible.