Creating a Sustainable eCommerce Business

It’s no secret that business happens to be one of the primary contributors to environmental damage. In fact, 100 companies are responsible for around 71% of global emissions. This makes it all the more important that entrepreneurs take responsibility to ensure that their endeavors have the least negative impact on the planet as possible. 

This goes for online businesses as well as those obvious polluting industries. Even though eCommerce may seem like it would have minimal detrimental effects upon our planet, there are still elements of its operations that produce excess waste and utilize finite resources. Particularly if your enterprise is one that produces green products, you also need to make sure that other areas of your operations are functioning sustainably.

Let’s take a closer look at the key areas for eCommerce leaders to focus on. What elements can be particularly challenging? What solutions are both readily available or worthy of further exploration?

Packaging and Raw Materials

It’s difficult to argue that you’re running a sustainable eCommerce operation if the products you provide are created from harmful or non-reusable materials. There’s added incentive to use sustainable materials because one study showed that 73% of Millennials — the largest group of consumers — are willing to pay more for sustainable products. While it can still be the case that green raw materials can be a little more expensive, they are certainly becoming more accessible, with various options available.

Seek out products that are substituting traditional non-biodegradable plastics. Bamboo can be used in everything from sunglass frames to toothbrushes, and even hay is being used to make sneakers. It may be the case that you need to do some extra leg work here; go further than searching online and attend trade shows if you can — this can help you connect with other small businesses too. Even if you’re working within drop-shipping spaces, providers such as Apliiq and Printful offer options for t-shirts and apparel that are sourced from sustainable materials.

Packaging is also one of the easiest material areas for eCommerce businesses to act sustainably. Envelopes and boxes made from recycled materials are widely available. In place of protective bubble wrap or packing peanuts, you can utilize cornstarch or mushroom-based alternatives. Agar — a material created from seaweed — is also currently being used as an alternative to plastic packaging.

Suppliers and Shipping

When it comes to sustainability, you also need to be cognizant of your partnerships. It’s not enough to declare that your products are made from eco-friendly materials. In eCommerce, you’ll likely be working alongside at least a couple of different businesses between production, and your items landing in your consumer’s hands.

Do your research into your partners’ business practices. Look at where and how they source their materials. Have they had issues with excess waste or polluting in the past, and what efforts have they made to overcome these? You must also take their ethical standards into account. Sustainability comes not just from the environmental impact businesses have, but also their social and cultural standards. If they outsource labor, be sure to examine the details of this, and how they support these workers and their communities.  

You must also make your standards known to those companies you want to partner with. Forging contacts through Business to Business (B2B) eCommerce can be useful here — there are a growing number of industries in this sector, spanning building materials, food services, and fashion. These will often be small entrepreneurs like you and open to sharing details of their own sustainability efforts. This could also lead to you both working together to keep each others’ sustainability standards high. 

Similarly, with shipping companies, it’s important to understand the extent of their environmental efforts. While some of the larger businesses may include their goals on their website, make an effort to have conversations with them about options that may be available. Can you request delivery only by electric vehicles? Are you able to arrange last-mile delivery by bicycle couriers or drones? 

Operations and Infrastructure

Your business is not just the products you sell, or the partnerships you forge — it’s also built on your day-to-day practices. Everything you do has the potential to impact our environment in some way. This is why you have to take a holistic view of sustainability for your eCommerce business.

If you have employees, consider how everybody travels to work. Can you reduce carbon emissions by implementing a ride-sharing scheme? Is it absolutely necessary that all staff members come into the office, or can you implement remote operations? This can not only minimize transport-related pollution but also reduce the resources used in the office. For those employees working at home, encourage them to utilize reusable products.

Warehousing can also be problematic in eCommerce spaces. They can be a drain on energy resources, not to mention produce waste. Where possible, consider not utilizing your own warehouse to store inventory. Explore whether you’re able to arrange shipment to consumers directly from your suppliers. If this isn’t practical, invest in installing energy-efficient lighting solutions and heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems.  

Moreover, to ensure that you can remain both sustainable and successful in the years to come, you must frequently review trends and how they can inform your policies. One of the key requirements for the next 10 years of business development is to prepare to make a difference. Corporate social responsibility is becoming a primary element not just in keeping ethically and environmentally sound but also in staying profitable. Alongside your product range, make efforts to explore how you can work to make a positive impact in your local community, and help to sustain it.

Conclusion

While eCommerce might not seem like an obvious source of environmental damage, business leaders must still make efforts to reduce harm. Explore alternative materials, be savvy about your relationships, and ensure you examine your practices and policies.

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