How to Grow a Green eCommerce Business

Over the past few decades, consumers have become more and more concerned about the environment. A growing number of buyers are adapting their spending habits—voting with their wallets for businesses to adopt more environmentally friendly practices.

Environmental sustainability makes a lot of business sense. Recent surveys show that around three quarters of respondents want businesses to offer more sustainable products and eco-friendly packaging. Meanwhile, over a third of respondents said they considered environmental impact factors before purchasing an item.

Beyond the benefit of attracting environmentally conscious customers, businesses should consider their future growth and success. According to the United Nations, the world has until 2030 to halve emissions and keep the temperature increase below 1.5º C. Otherwise, climate change will cause irreversible damage. If eCommerce is to be the business of the future, it needs to adapt and evolve to protect that future.

The Environmental Benefits of eCommerce

When it comes to the environment, eCommerce has a few advantages over traditional commerce. Shopping online may allow customers to reduce their carbon footprint by cutting down on trips to physical stores. In theory, home deliveries might result in fewer transportation emissions. 

Many eCommerce businesses also allow their employees to work from home, which reduces emissions produced by commuting and maintaining an office space. Additionally, digital transactions cut down on paper waste and the use of high-consumption inks and toners.

The Environmental Challenges of eCommerce

On the other hand, eCommerce has its own set of challenges. While shopping online could reduce transportation emissions, it sometimes has the opposite effect: the convenience of buying from online stores encourages customers to shop even more. Additionally, with the increasing demand for fast shipping and instant gratification, businesses often have to send out freights that are only partially full, which puts more vehicles back on the road.

Shipping items to the customer is often only half the battle, since returns are so frequent and convenient. About 30% of products ordered online are returned, as opposed to less than 9% of products purchased in physical stores. All these additional returns result in much higher transportation emissions.

Packaging is another problem area for the eco-friendliness of eCommerce. The size of a box relative to a product has a large impact on the product’s carbon footprint. Not only do larger boxes consume more cardboard, but they also require excessive padding to ensure items arrive to customers in perfect condition, and they take up more room in delivery trucks.

How to Green Your eCommerce Business

The good news is that small businesses and eCommerce stores are better positioned than huge brands to make environmentally friendly practices part of their identity. Larger companies with established business practices have further to go to offset their environmental impact.

Integrating sustainability into your brand’s ethos from the beginning or as you grow can keep your carbon footprint small from the start—as well as helping you stand out and gain customer trust.

However, make sure not to exaggerate your brand’s commitment to sustainability, otherwise known as “greenwashing.” For example, many companies tout their use of recyclable plastic but neglect to mention that in the United States less than 9% of plastic is actually recycled. 

Customers are getting savvier about identifying greenwashing, and it will harm your reputation. Back up your sustainability claims with specific facts and be transparent about your supply chain and business practices.

Sustainable shipping and packaging

Any environmentally sustainable eCommerce business plan should address shipping and packaging.

Choosing the right material and size for your packages is essential. Wherever possible, use mailers instead of boxes. If using a box, make sure it’s the right size for the product or products. Use packages made of 100% recycled material (post-consumer waste is the best).

Reduce the quantity of packing materials you use as well as choosing the most eco-friendly alternatives available. Protective packaging such as bubble wrap and styrofoam is difficult to recycle and generates a lot of unnecessary waste. 100% recycled paper or corrugated bubble wrap can be good alternatives. Reusing packing materials can also significantly reduce your waste.

Make your packaging returnable so customers can reuse it to send back their items. Let them know through a message printed on the outside of your packages, in your emails, or in your online store so they know they should preserve their box or mailer when opening it. Make it easy for customers to obtain a return shipping label that will send the package through ground shipping rather than air.

Finally, provide your customers with instructions for how to recycle packaging. Ensure all materials can be easily recycled through curbside pickup in most cities to make the process as easy as possible.

Offer sustainable products

Eco-friendly products attract a lot of customer attention and can serve as the core of your business’s sustainable identity. As you develop sustainable products, keep in mind durability, disassembly, minimalism, and sustainable raw materials.

Durability. More durable items will not only make your customers happier but can also significantly reduce waste. Many online shoppers are willing to pay more money for a product if they know it will last. Emphasizing the eco-friendly side of durability will only make your product more desirable.

Design for Disassembly. Another great way to improve your brand’s eco-friendliness and reduce waste is to make your product easy to disassemble. This design choice can allow customers to repair your products instead of replacing them as well as permitting more versatility when your product reaches the next cycle of its life. Products that can be easily broken down into their components enable those components to be reused or repurposed instead of ending up in a landfill.

Minimalism. Simplifying your design can reduce the amount of raw materials your product requires, minimize production costs and emissions, and/or make your product easier to use and less likely to break, among other benefits. Cut out all components and fillers that don’t fulfill a specific aesthetic or functional purpose.

Lightweighting or making your product with less material is a valuable trend in sustainable product design. Lighter products take fewer resources to produce, store, and ship.

In traditional retail, brands often produce multiple container sizes of the same product to fill shelves and provide the illusion of convenience. Too-large containers can result in the customer ending up with more of the product than they need, while too-small containers can result in additional packaging waste.

Test different sizes to see which one strikes the best balance. As an eCommerce brand without shelf space to fill, you likely don’t need to offer more than one or two sizes of each product.

Raw materials. One of the clearest paths to a more sustainable product is by choosing sustainable raw materials. Look for recycled materials, ideally post-consumer waste, wherever possible—as well as materials that can be recycled again after your product’s current life cycle. Where applicable, search for materials certified to be sustainably, ethically, and responsibly sourced.

Keep in mind that not all “renewable” materials are equal. Prioritize rapidly renewable, low-waste materials, which can be replenished quickly and use less water and energy to produce.

Develop a sustainable supply chain

You can cut down on transportation emissions in your supply chain by sourcing products and materials from suppliers who are closer to your warehouse and moving your network operations closer to your end consumers. By using nearby suppliers, you’ll be able to obtain materials and products more quickly and may be able to cut back on your inventory. If possible, try to work with shipping companies that are working to reduce their emissions, such as through the use of electric or more fuel-efficient vehicles.

When choosing outside manufacturers to work with, make sure they understand your commitment to sustainability and either already share that commitment or are willing to make improvements. Examine and discuss their workplace and labor conditions, the energy sources they use and how they work to reduce consumption, how they measure and reduce freshwater usage, their procedure for minimizing the risk posed by chemicals and toxins, their waste management policies, and any certifications they have earned.

Inventory management also plays an important role in developing a sustainable supply chain. Cutting back on the variety of products you offer—for example, as mentioned above, only carrying one or two container sizes of each product—can make it easier to balance between overstocking and understocking. Producing on demand or using a FIFO (first in, first out) inventory method can help reduce the amount of damaged or obsolete products you have in stock.

Some Amazing Green eCommerce Brands

As you embark on or continue your journey towards a greener, more sustainable eCommerce brand, you can get inspired by these amazing eco-friendly online businesses.

Enbois is a style and apparel store selling products designed and assembled in South Florida from rapidly renewable and ethically farmed woods. With each purchase, Enbois donates $3 to fund the planting of a tree in Haiti, Mexico, or Jamaica, all of which have been devastated by deforestation.

Nyakio earned the Target Clean award in 2020 for its ethically sourced skincare products that contain no parabens, phthalates, or sulfates. It’s a Black woman-founded store that bases its products on African skincare traditions.

Trade Street Jam Co. makes small-batch, hand-made jams that have no pectin, thickeners, or stabilizers or extra sugar. This woman and minority-led company uses no animal products in the production of its jams.

Thousand Fell creates durable, biodegradable, and recyclable sneakers with sustainably sourced materials. Their shoes are made in a small, family-owned factory in Brazil, which allows them to prevent excess inventory while maintaining high quality.