Online retail has skyrocketed in recent years.
Consumers were already online shopping pre-pandemic, but COVID-19 accelerated this trend. Today there are more online businesses than ever before and virtually all brick-and-mortar stores also offer online options.
And while online shopping is convenient and easy, it’s not without its environmental costs.
Online retailers need to be aware of these negative impacts and incorporate eco-friendly practices into their operations. And if they don’t do it on their own, consumers will start demanding they do. As people become more aware of sustainable practices, they increasingly expect companies to change their ways.
Here are 8 sustainable strategies businesses can implement today.
Think about the path a single item takes, from the initial product fabrication to the end consumer.
Each product starts as raw materials, which are brought to a factory where it’s created. Then, the supply chain continues from factory > wholesaler > retailer > courier > consumer. If the customer isn’t happy, they may return or exchange their item—perhaps even a few times. This results in anywhere between 3-5+ trips in the mail, each with new packaging and delivery.
The environmental impact of online shopping comes down to two main categories: more materials and more emissions.
1. More Packaging
Each item sold online is packaged for shipping. Cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and filler material (i.e., bubble wrap) are all common, and many packages use a combination of these different materials.
There are three main problems with product packaging:
- Mixed materials are hard to recycle or the materials aren’t recyclable
- Even if they are recyclable, consumers may not want to recycle or do so incorrectly
- And even if consumers want to recycle, we don’t have equal access to recycling services—about 40 million US homes don’t have access that’s equitable to garbage services
Some people think that packaging isn’t a problem as long as it can be recycled. But, much of it cannot, and there are roadblocks to consumer access and mindset towards recycling. Unfortunately, a lot of ecommerce packaging still ends up in the landfill because of the major hurdles with recycling packaging like poly mailers.
2. More Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The second major environmental problem associated with online shopping is increased greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide (CO2).
There are a few sources to be aware of:
- Production of packaging materials—the more demand for packaging products, the more energy it takes to make them
- Delivery of products from distribution centers and wholesalers to retail centers
- Delivery to consumers by FedEx or Amazon
Producing and moving products around the world takes energy. And the more we purchase items that need to be shipped, the more harmful greenhouse gas emissions there are in the atmosphere.
Luckily, there are a number of sustainability practices that online businesses can use to decrease their negative environmental impact.
Here are some options to look at:
1. Try Carbon Offsetting
Carbon offsetting compensates for harmful emissions produced from industrial activity. For example, a delivery company that has high CO2 emissions from its fleet of vehicles might choose to offset it by investing in one of the following initiatives:
- Renewable energy
- Waste and water management
- Carbon sequestration
- Energy efficiency
There are a number of ways that companies can offset their carbon footprint. Large companies may have their own mechanism to do this work, but many will partner with sustainability organizations or non-profits to do so.
2. Reduce Deliveries
Every time a delivery vehicle drives, there’s an impact on the environment. To reduce the number of deliveries, consider these options:
- Batch deliver items: Don’t just send one thing at a time, but wait until all items are in before sending it to the consumer
- Mitigate returns and exchanges: Provide accurate information and high-quality customer support to help the consumer make the best decision possible and avoid unnecessary trips back and forth
- Use warehousing solutions: This lets you purchase in bulk and avoid excessive deliveries
3. Use Less Packaging
You’ve heard the mantra before—reduce, reuse, recycle. The first option is what we should do most often: reduce the overall use of materials to lower your impact. This applies to packaging, too.
When packaging products, take a minimalist approach, using only what’s necessary to protect the item in its journey to the consumer. For example, choosing a simple paper mailer for small, flat products may be a better option that uses less packaging.
4. Invest in Eco-friendly Materials
Reducing packaging only goes so far. Consider also investing in sustainable materials that can be either recycled or composted by the consumer.
Our compostable poly mailers can help support the environment when it is disposed of correctly in the landfill. Many people don’t know that this is the correct disposal method, though, and it can contribute to a bigger problem. Online retailers also need to be educated about the products they buy and understand how to appropriately use them to achieve the best environmental impact.
Paper mailers are another eco-friendly and stylish option for companies looking to reduce their environmental impact.
5. Find Eco-friendly Delivery Options
Deliveries are a major source of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the supply chain. There are some services and companies that use green transportation or invest in other sustainability options.
Here are some examples of companies with innovative green solutions:
- UPS announced ambitious sustainability goals such as achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Part of this is their investment in electric vehicles and offsetting carbon by planting trees
- Convoy’s innovative technology lets them batch deliveries so that trucks are never empty. This can reduce carbon emissions by over 30% when you choose to ship with them
- GLS has a growing fleet of electric vehicles, and has achieved emissions-free parcel delivery in some cities and countries (e.g., Amsterdam)
6. Re-sell Returned Items at a Discount
Depending on the industry, some retailers have a hard time reselling returned items. This means that products end up being thrown away in the landfill instead of being reused. One way to eliminate this problem is to resell returned items at a discount.
Many consumers will be happy about both a discount and the chance to save something from going to waste and harming the environment.
7. Select Packaging that Fits Your Item
You’ve probably received a big package from Amazon or another retailer, only to open it and find a teeny tiny item surrounded by filler material.
It’s not a very eco-friendly way to package things! When selecting your packaging material, make sure it appropriately fits the item so you’re not using more than you absolutely need.
8. Purchase in Bulk
One of the best ways to reduce the number of overall deliveries is to purchase in bulk. This is also a good strategy to ensure your business has everything you need, when you need it.
A roadblock for some businesses is storage space. This is particularly true for online companies that don’t have any physical infrastructure to keep inventory or supplies. Our warehousing solutions allow you to purchase in bulk but store it in our facilities.
Online retail allows companies to reach more clients and better serve their customer base. But as consumers continue to turn to online shopping, we can’t ignore the negative impacts it has on the environment.
The good news is that there are many green strategies and options for online businesses to use and reduce their negative environmental impact. These eight options are a great starting place to become more sustainable.If you’re looking for eco-friendly supplies or are interested in our effective warehousing solutions, contact us today and see how Northern Specialty Supplies can support your eco-goals.