The conscious consumer and the rise of sustainable ecommerce

Written by Jonty Sutton, CEO and founder of Redbox Digital

After ordering a book through Amazon you are met at the front door by a delivery man with a box big enough to carry a fridge-freezer. Meanwhile, the six items purchased through your favourite online clothes store arrive in four separate packages over the space of two days.

We have all heard stories similar to these. We aren’t just talking major waste here – what about the environmental impact from all those deliveries? And just how many times will the clothes even be worn before they end up on a landfill site?

Global online sales will hit $3.5 trillion this year – and are expected to rise to $24 trillion by 2025. But while the industry grows at an unprecedented rate, so too is the voice of the ‘conscious consumer’.

A recent survey by not-for-profit global movement Fashion Revolution found one in three consumers consider the environmental impact when shopping, with the majority feeling it was ‘important for fashion brands to reduce their long-term impacts on the world by addressing global poverty, climate change, environmental protection and gender inequality.’

Environmental concerns have even led many consumers to change their shopping habits. Research by YouGov for click and collect provider Doddle, found 43 per cent of UK shoppers are more likely to shop with a rival retailer if they offered a greater range of sustainable delivery options.

Today, corporate social responsibility is more than just a gimmick to make your company stand out. As consumers are becoming more aware of what their lifestyle choices are doing to the planet, they are demanding brands and businesses react accordingly.

If you are a digital retailer, what can you do to meet the expectations of your consumers?

Packaging and waste

Have you considered how much packaging your business is using when shipping to customers? Are there ways you could cut down on the wastage? What may seem like an expensive or time-consuming process, can actually help you build trust with consumers and save money in the long-term.

Data collected by US start-up LimeLoop estimates around 165 billion packages are shipped in the US each year, with the cardboard equating to roughly 1 billion trees.

However, it is one of a growing number of digital retailers fighting to reduce these frightening statistics, in this case replacing cardboard boxes and disposable packaging with recycled vinyl. Ecommerce companies using LimeLoop packaging give consumers the option of the product being sent in used packaging during checkout, with the customer resending the packaging back after delivery. The vinyl replacements have a 10-year life, can be used 2,000 times and are estimated to save 1,300 trees and around 2 million gallons of water for every 100 deliveries.

Digital cosmetics brand Adore Beauty is using new warehouse management software to cut down on its packaging through ‘volumetric calculation.’ The company scanned 13,000 products to get the dimensions and weights to ensure the smallest box was used with each order, minimising the environmental impact of the company while saving money on shipping costs and taking up less warehouse space.

But carboard packaging is not the only concern. Plastics are still a hot topic with more companies looking at alternative ways of packing and protecting their products.

River Island CEO Ben Lewis told Redbox: “Plastics are obviously an issue to customers – and cause a lot of division. I really think we should be using recyclable plastic and I’m in favour of legislation that would ensure companies and individuals are forced, or highly-incentivised, to use recycled plastics so we are not damaging the environment or natural resources.”

Stand and deliver

With more consumers buying online than ever before, we are no longer looking at the odd package being delivered to the home. The weekly shop, fresh produce, meal kits, takeaways, electric goods, clothes, gifts, furniture – are all available within hours at the click of a button.

How are your products being shipped from warehouse or shop to customer? Could you be tightening up the delivery process? Are you using a shipping company that is doing all it can to improve its green credentials?

A recent survey by British logistics firm Wincanton found more than a quarter of British consumers are likely to buy from a retailer that uses electric vehicles, with millennials much more likely to buy from retailers offering sustainable delivery options.

Many UK distribution companies are taking note and doing their bit to help minimise their environmental impact.
DPD has opened its first all-electric last-mile delivery depot in London, with Hermes counting 32 electric vans in its fleet and rising.

But many retailers and consumers are looking to the future. Step forward ‘the Magway system,’ which aims to move parcels between distribution centres and consolidation centres through underground pipelines, similar to those used by water, gas and electricity companies.

Experts backed by online grocer Ocado are already working on the development of an initial 52-mile network of pipes, stretching from northwest London to Hertfordshire and on to Milton Keynes. This first link alone has the capacity to transport more than 600 million parcels a year and will significantly reduce Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) from the roads.

One day, we may even see a national network of pipes that could take packages directly to warehouses or homes.

Recycle, recycle, recycle.

When it doesn’t cost much more to buy a new washing machine than repair your current one, or less to buy a new shirt than mend the gaping hole in your favourite garment, it’s easy to see why our full-to-the-brim landfills are a major talking point.

But consumers are becoming much more aware of how much ‘stuff’ we throw away and many brands are doing more to try to stop the vicious cycle.

The Worn Wear program run by outdoor brand Patagonia provides resources for repair, reuse and recycling at the end of a garment’s life. Clothing brand PrettyLittleThing is one of numerous brands to have partnered with reGain, an app allowing shoppers to donate unwanted clothing and accessories in exchange for discounts on their next purchase. Shoe giant Vans has partnered with recycling company TerraCycle, which is using materials from used trainers to create new items, from park benches to phone cases.

Meanwhile, River Island has been working closely with a charity it co-founded called New Life – taking damaged goods from retailers that would have normally been disposed, while raising money to help families and individuals with disabilities.

If you aren’t finding ways to help customers recycle your goods, why not? If you haven’t the time or resources to set something up yourself, there are a multitude of companies and charities you can partner with that will help you put your plans in place.

Give something back

Maybe recycling your product is not an easy option, or you are inspired to do even more. Then why not join the growing list of companies giving something back to the world.

Online market giant Etsy has published data on its carbon footprint for six years, calculating some 98 per cent of it comes from shipping. To counteract its perceived environmental damage, it has recently invested in a number of carbon offsetting programs, including supporting a wind and solar project in India and protecting a forest in the US.

Meanwhile, shoe brand TOMS donates a pair of shoes to a disadvantaged child for every pair it sells, giving away 93 million pairs so far, with headband company Banded2Gether donating three meals to a child in need on every purchase.

Could you join the growing list of online brands and businesses giving something back to offset their environmental impact or carbon footprint?

Is it time to commit to change?

This is just a snapshot of the ecommerce retailers making big strides when it comes to sustainability. If you haven’t already taken similar steps, but want to do more, think:
• Packaging and waste. Can you do more to cut down on the packaging used during shipping, or swap to a more sustainable option?
• Delivery. Could you give shoppers an option of longer delivery times if it meant lessening the environmental impact through fewer deliveries? Could you go electric? Are you with a distribution company that cares about sustainability?
• Recycling. Have you considered what happens to your product when it is no longer used? Is there anything you can do to reuse? Could you partner up with a company that can make the most of your items before they join the landfills?
• Give something back. Should you take steps to offset your carbon footprint?

Deloitte’s Global Powers of Retailing 2019 report sums it up best. It said: “Opportunity awaits retailers committed to driving change in more responsible practices, as consumers increasingly expect that brands should be accountable for sustainable manufacturing practices, transparency and reducing their overall carbon footprint……in a consumer-led sector such as retail, failure to take heed of this could be fatal.”

It is clear that consumers are becoming more aware of what their shopping habits are doing to the world around them. Ecommerce retailers are reacting, with the rise of brands being more transparent in the way they work and ensuring their processes and methods are more sustainable.

If you are an online retailer, it is crucial you look carefully at your own practices, or run the risk of being left behind by the new wave of environmentally-savvy shoppers.

But brands, business owners and customers must work together to take responsibility for the impact our shopping habits are having on the world and environment. Small steps can make a big difference.