Building Your E-Commerce Business Sustainably

The business world has undergone a lot of shifts during the rise of our digital landscape. In fact, there have been entirely new industries to emerge which both serve the needs of the technological revolution and take advantage of the benefits it has brought with it. One of those sectors that continues to evolve toward dominance is that of e-commerce.

The online retail space is increasingly relevant to how rising generations of consumers prefer to shop. Not to mention that the necessity to keep distances during COVID-19 has enlightened many consumers that had previously been reluctant about the benefits of e-commerce.


However, alongside the opportunities, it is important to note that online retail business owners have similar social, ethical, and environmental responsibilities to their in-person counterparts. Sustainability — the ability to operate your business in a way that is mindful of resource consumption and actively mitigates damaging practices — is a primary concern for consumers too.


So, how can you approach building your e-commerce business with sustainability as a central feature? Let’s look at some areas for your focus. 

Consider Your Materials

How you approach your use of materials in your e-commerce business can have an impact on the environment. There’s often the assumption that because these companies operate primarily online, that they are naturally more environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case — e-commerce businesses might utilize materials differently from in-person stores, but they still are at risk of overusing them. 


This should start with an awareness of the products you sell. Talk to your suppliers to understand how these are made, where the raw materials are sourced, and what is being done to replace those raw materials. It may well be the case that sustainable raw materials prove to be slightly more expensive. But remember that a recent study found that 73% of Millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable goods. Not to mention that more e-commerce providers insisting on only sustainable materials in products sends a message to suppliers and affects the long-term rate of adoption and reduction in costs.  


One of the easier ways for your business to act sustainably is through your choice of packaging. Compostable materials are more accessible than ever. Remember to opt for boxes and envelopes that are biodegradable and utilize cardboard inserts rather than packing peanuts. While recyclable materials are a step in the right direction, the recycling process itself also generates harmful waste and emissions. It’s generally better to go with materials that can be directly reused or degrade quickly. You should also be setting up protocols that minimize the number of materials that are used in shipping — don’t use separate packages for individual items being sent to the same address; consolidate the delivery.

Market Mindfully

Your e-commerce business is unlikely to survive for very long without effective marketing. However, it’s also important to understand that the activities involved with making those all-important connections with your consumers can have a detrimental effect on the environment. As such, you must approach the process with consideration to potential damage. 


It is unlikely that you’ll be using paper for your advertisements, but that doesn’t mean that paper isn’t used in planning. Encourage your marketing team to use electronic devices only for planning and take unnecessary paper consumption out of the equation. However, it is just as important to be wary of the fact that each social media post you create, every email you send results in electricity consumption. This is not just from your own devices, but the energy used on servers and the businesses that run them. You can mitigate this with careful planning — create marketing materials designed to make the biggest impact with the least number of posts.   


You must also be mindful of how you market your products. There is a trend in business today of greenwashing. This is where companies use their marketing materials to make claims of sustainability when their actions are quite the opposite. Often, they’ll use industry buzzwords such as “pure,” “natural,” or “botanical” to create the assumption that products are ecologically friendly. You must be transparent and authentic in marketing your products — when you claim that any of your e-commerce offerings are sustainable when they are not, you risk damaging not only your reputation but also trust in environmentally conscious businesses across the industry. 

Engage in Positive Partnerships

Even if you run your e-commerce business as a sole trader, you are rarely dependent only on your activities. As such, it’s important to examine how all those you interact with as part of your operations help or hinder your sustainability goals.

Areas to consider include:


●   Shipping

Your shipping partners have the potential to be key contributors to environmental sustainability. You need to engage in a dialogue with them about how they minimize their negative impact — do they use route planning software that adjusts for efficiency and reduces consumption? Are they investing in electric vehicles for last-mile deliveries? Be discerning about who you choose to partner with to get your products to your customers. If they don’t have a similar commitment to your own, it can negate your efforts.

●   Warehousing

Many e-commerce business owners choose not to warehouse their own products, but rather have them stored offsite. This is particularly common when you are utilizing a dropshipping business model. As such, it’s important to look into what efforts the warehousing company is putting into minimizing electricity consumption, reducing waste, and maximizing their current property rather than expanding property. It can take a little more time and energy to undertake this, but it will make your operations more holistically sustainable.


●   Utilities

It may seem like an unusual focus, but even the choice of utility companies you partner with for your vital services makes a difference. There are the obvious areas, such as electricity providers who offer renewable energy sources. But also consider the actions of internet service providers — what actions do they take to mitigate overconsumption in their server farms, how do they handle office waste?


The ability of your e-commerce business to be sustainable is really dependent on how deep into the process you are willing to go. Basic steps such as reviewing your material usage and utilizing green marketing are easily accessible to most entrepreneurs. However, if you’re willing to put additional effort into engaging with your various partners on the subject of environmental responsibility in their operations, you can ensure your business has a more holistically sustainable impact.


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