After recently watching 'Before The Flood' (you know, that Leo DiCaprio documentary about how crap we all are at looking after our planet) and reading in the news that we're all drinking plastic, it got us thinking about how e-commerce contributes to the problem, who is leading the way and how brands can limit their environmental impact and benefit from it in the process.
Like most of us, you'll probably want to be living on a functioning planet in 50 years time, but we tend not to act on things unless there’s a direct and visible benefit to us. So, what are the benefits? Looking at this from a purely business perspective, making your e-commerce business an ethical one, is a smart choice.
Being environmentally friendly has become mainstream and people have never been more educated on the issues that we face. Recent surveys suggest that around 61% of shoppers consider the environment when deciding where to shop and what to spend their money on. Ethical cosmetic giant Lush, saw pre-tax profits rise 76 per cent to £43 million in the year ending June 2016 - so without doubt, green sells!
By building a brand that considers the environment in every aspect of your business, and creating products with little to no harmful impact, you'll be able to effectively tap into that consciousness and develop a valuable connection between you and your environmentally-conscious customers. What's more, shout it from the rooftops - by being proud and transparent in how you produce and distribute your products, an open and inclusive attitude will be an effective way to build trust between you and your customers, whilst providing you with an advantage over your competition.
Aspects To Consider
What's wrong with fast fashion? Everything.
Fashion and textile production is the third most polluting industry in the world, beaten only by the oil and agriculture industries, so when it comes to the environment fast fashion is the anti-christ.
Fast fashion refers to the strategy within the fashion industry, whereby the production process is expedited to get new trends to market as quickly and as cheaply as possible. This directly causes several major issues that drastically impact the environment. Due to the speed at which new trends appear on the market, a throw away society and over-consumption has developed and is encouraged. This then leads to the production of products none of us really need and a demand that Mother Earth can't keep up with.
Say for example your cotton products are indeed made from 100% organic cotton, it's worth remembering that it still takes more than 5,000 gallons of water to manufacture a single t-shirt and pair of jeans. To have the most impact, it's important to encourage customers to only buy products if they really need them. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it worked for Patagonia who added value to their brand by slowing consumer demand and encouraging customers to keep their products for longer. London-based fashion brand Finery, are also another example of the anti-fast fashion movement who create clothing to be treasured. So what are the steps that you should take? To enact change as a retailer you need to approach fast fashion in two key ways:
Firstly through your products - The more people buy, the heavier the effect on the planet to create that product, whether that be through materials or water consumption. When manufacturing your products, develop standards and practices for designing whatever you sell, whether that be clothing or furniture, that can be easily repaired, reused or recycled. Invest in developing new materials and fibres that will lower the environmental impact of making it in the first place and above all make things that have the quality to last a lifetime and won't break after 6-months.
Secondly, encourage a culture of make-do and mend within your community of customers to slow down consumption. If you've been considerate in your design and manufacturing process and built long-lasting products, then you'll be able to repair an item instead of throwing it away. For example, if you can easily replace the zipper on a jacket you designed without damaging other elements of the item, intelligent design will mean your customers won't need to spend more on a replacement. Furthermore, actively encourage customers to care for their clothes in ways that will prolong their use such as washing them in cold water. If you’re thinking 'Hey, then I'll sell less in the long term', you’d be wrong. A brand that does this will become renowned for producing quality, durable products that your customers will tell their friends and family about. Patagonia adopted this strategy, actively discouraging consumers to purchase their clothing and they have grown in to a multi-million dollar company.
Lastly, introducing recycling programmes or a repair service into your offering are fantastic ways to future-proof your products providing greater customer appeal for your brand. Excellent e-commerce brands that offer recycling programs are Swedish Stockings and Nice Laundry and when it comes to a repair service, Nudie Jeans Co. have multiple retail repair shops as well as offering a repair kit that you can order online to patch up your jeans yourself.
Dawn of the Planet of the Vegans
In 2010, the UN reported that one of the most effective ways to protect the environment is to adopt a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, due to the harmful effects of factory farming. In Britain alone the number of vegans has risen by 360% in the last 10 years, with younger generations in particular adopting the lifestyle.
With this dramatic growth of Veganism, so too have we seen a rise in Vegan fashion brands and boutiques such as Votch, Matt & Nat, Veja and Alive Boutique who offer vegan-friendly alternatives to fashion products that dramatically aid the environment against harmful gases and mass-deforestation. Are you using leather in your products? Ask yourself, are there alternative materials that you could use to manufacture with, that help the environment and allow you to tap into a new and growing customer base.
Dependant on the type of products you sell there may be a number of unique options to consider when undergoing change to benefit the environment.
An obvious consideration for brands that sell consumables such as food & drink or cosmetics would be to guarantee that all ingredients used are natural, organic and that no animal testing was conducted during the manufacturing process. Avoiding man-made synthetic materials, chemicals or ingredients such as palm oil and micro-beads is another huge bonus. This of course provides additional benefits such as increased customer trust that the natural products they are consuming won’t be causing them personal harm. A couple of examples of brands who inspire in this respect include Sustain Natural, Herbivore Botanicals and Frank Body.
When organising the suppliers, gain assurances that your ingredients/materials are coming from sustainable sources, you only need look at instances such as this to realise that without diligence you can be directly contributing to conservation disasters.
Your manufacturing process is likely to be where you can make the largest reductions on your consumption and overall environmental effect.
Whilst it’s more beneficial financially to look to more affordable factories and suppliers in the Far-East to handle the production, from an environmental perspective trying to source local manufacturers is instrumental to reducing the carbon emissions of product transportation. From a practical and logistical point of view this provides further benefits as it allows you to ensure responsible production, continued supplier quality through regular visits and a stronger relationship between you and your suppliers, something that is difficult to achieve with suppliers on another continent without time/money consuming trips and further carbon emissions.
Whether you choose a local manufacturer or not, it's vital that you use responsible suppliers. By choosing to work with factories that are energy self-sufficient through green energies and keeping your entire supply chain in line with your green goals, you can reduce your overall impact and shout it from the rooftops to your customers at the same time. Fashion brands such as Nudie Jean Co. and Everlane are the masters of production transparency by publicly showing exactly where all of their products are produced, keeping them accountable for what they are manufacturing. It's this transparency that not only gives your new and existing customers a wealth of information on what they are buying but breeds trust in your brand as a whole, demonstrating that you're entirely open and sharing in what you do, a priceless commodity in e-commerce.
When it comes down to the actual product and what materials you use, do your research and try to use those that have a reduced impact on the environment. Ask yourself questions like, 'Does using *material A* instead of *material B* reduce water consumption during production?' to refine your manufacturing process. If financially viable, invest in the development of new materials and technologies that reduce your brands carbon footprint. Dick Moby for example, are a sustainable eyewear brand who are on a mission to reduce plastic pollution. Their black framed glasses and sunglasses are produced using recycled acetate waste, whilst all other coloured frames are produced with bio-based acetate made without crude oil or toxic plasticisers. Even their cleaning cloths are planet-friendly, with each cloth made from 7 used PET plastic bottles. Learn more and get inspired by their story here.
Packaging and Shipping
Packaging is a key aspect of your e-commerce business that can be environmentally optimised. Here are some points to consider...
Ensuring that all packaging is 100% recycled and recyclable should be the bare minimum, as well as encouraging customers to recycle all packaging at their end with a simple delivery note or stamp on the box itself. Furthermore, make a point of stating to your customers that your packaging is 100% recyclable as this helps build towards your positive environmental brand image.
Where possible, try to reduce your packaging as much as you can - layer upon layer of tissue paper and unnecessary plastics bags are not your friend, keep it as basic as possible whilst still retaining product protection and the feel of your brand. Be innovative - Can you fit your order invoice and returns label all on one sheet of paper instead of two? Could you even replace your returns label with a downloadable form on your store to eliminate the need of unnecessary ready printed returns labels?
Big box, Little Box: We’ve all experienced it, the courier drops off that gigantic Amazon box, you open it up only to find that the item you ordered only fills about 10% of the box it arrived in. Make sure this isn’t your brand. Not only is this bad from an environmental standpoint with the over-use of packaging and the unnecessary additional space required for freight, but you will leave a negative first impression that you are wasteful to your customers. Chances are that at the very least it's causing you higher shipping costs so use tailored, size-specific packaging.
There's no getting away from it, no matter what you do, shipping will always have a negative impact on the planet, which is why adopting a carbon-neutral program is the most logical approach to environmentally friendly shipping. The goal of a carbon-neutral program is not to eradicate all carbon emissions that you associate with shipping as this would be impossible. Instead the aim is to offset your emissions by removing equal amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Typically this involves the funding of initiatives such as tree planting in depleted forests or investing in solar, wind or hydroelectric plants.
It's worth considering your own immediate energy consumption when trying to be as green as possible. Of course you could just install those energy efficient bulbs and be done with it, but you could go a few steps further.
If you run your business from an office/studio or have a physical retail space, it 's worth considering renewable energy suppliers such as Bulb to keep the lights on. Whilst not feasible for small-scale retailers, for those running medium to large companies, consider other cleaner ways of operating your business on a daily basis. Investing in renewable energy such as solar to take your business off the grid, smart energy efficient machinery which reduces manufacturing waste and greener transport alternatives. Whilst this would be an outlay in the short-term, future-proofing your e-commerce business will pay you greater benefits as you grow.
Environmentally Conscious Apps
Over half of the brands that we have noted have e-commerce stores that are built using the Shopify platform. If you too use Shopify for your e-commerce brand then there are a couple of environmentally conscious apps that are worth checking out and implementing...
This app is designed to enhance your store checkout experience and integrate a seamless and discreet good-cause related option at checkout. With research highlighting that aligning with a cause can increase store sales overall, this app allows you to do well by doing good.
A simple app that does what it says on the tin. This app asks customers if they would like to plant a tree for $1 at the checkout, giving your customers a tangible do-good feeling when they make an order with you.
What if I'm doing more harm than good?
You can create change in your e-commerce business on certain aspects mentioned above such as shipping and packaging but for particular brands it's inevitable that the manufacturing of their products will do harm to the environment. If your business finds itself in this position then there are steps that you can take which at the very least try to counter your impact on the environment.
First and foremost never stop investing in research and development. Just because there isn't a way to produce your product ethically today, doesn't mean a new technique, process or fabric won't help you later down the line. From there we recommend introducing a voluntary carbon tax which you pay to an environmental cause or charity that will help the planet, furthermore create a scheme of your own or partner directly with other brands to run projects that are a local or global benefit. This in turn is appreciated by your customers who will value your efforts to putting a good cause before maximum profits.
Above all, remain transparent about the fact that you aren't the most eco-friendly but illustrate your brand values that you care by at least offsetting your impact through good causes and encouraging others to follow suit.
We hope this article has made you think and consider how you can do things differently with your e-commerce business.
As a digital e-commerce studio, we are very conscious of current environmental issues and are actively interested in working with ethical and environmentally friendly e-commerce brands that strive to make a difference. If this sounds like you then we'd love to chat.