Steps to sustainable ecommerce

by Amba Wilkes

Momentum has been building for some time for brands to exist for the purpose of doing more than just making money. A demand for sustainable eCommerce but how can businesses achieve this? Find out what has caused these changes and how you can meet these expectations.

Consumers and businesses alike are becoming more interested in making environmentally friendly choices. But how to become a sustainable eCommerce brand isn’t always clear. What do consumers genuinely care about? Are they truly paying more attention to sustainability? What can you do as a business to ensure you’re both sustainable and profitable? 

Momentum has been building for some time for brands to exist with a purpose greater than making money. An expectation has grown to bring value to consumers in ways beyond simply offering the product or service they want. 

So, what has caused these changes and how can businesses meet the growing demand for sustainable eCommerce? 

in this blog.

We discuss…

  • changes in consumer priorities
  • what exactly we mean when we talk about sustainability
  • the ins and outs of sustainable ecommerce
  • how some brands have made their ecommerce offering more sustainable 

a change in consumer priorities.

There’s a worldwide concern for the future of our planet and the responsibility falls with every one of us to do our bit. 

Retail is undergoing a transition. eCommerce has opened new sales channels and new opportunities to engage shoppers, a trend that COVID has only accelerated. While the fast uptake in eCommerce has led to some huge conveniences, it’s also responsible for huge environmental impact. We’ve soon recognised that modern-day factors such as single-use plastic packaging and speedy shipping times are simply not sustainable. 

This has led to greater demand for sustainability, particularly in eCommerce, with growing consumer desire for sustainable eCommerce is putting pressure on brands. In an episode of the McKinsey on Consumer and Retail podcast, McKinsey partner, Sebastian Gatze said: 

“One out of four consumers say they are planning to focus more on environmental issues and will pay more attention to social aspects in their shopping behaviour.”

what is meant by sustainability.

Sustainability means doing something in a way that doesn’t deplete natural resources and supports long-term, global balance. It’s about balancing the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.

Another buzz word or so much more than that? Sustainability has been openly discussed by shoppers and brands over recent years. But it’s about more than just being environmentally friendly. It’s also about how a business can be sustained. 

sustainable ecommerce: the ins and outs.

When it comes to eCommerce, the main concerns are how online purchases are packaged, delivered and returned to the retailer. Each of these add to cost, time, materials and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Alongside these, there are also other areas to consider:

  • disposable nature: Our disposable nature has made it easy for us to disregard products as fast as we buy them. A commonly discussed sustainability challenge is the fast fashion culture that this mindset has created. 

    Cheap clothing produced quickly and sold in large quantities – there’s no wonder this business model is having profound environmental impacts. The pull to fast-fashion shopping? 21 percent of UK respondents say that lower prices are their top reason for purchasing these items.
  • financial gains: While there is of course a moral importance for brands to start considering sustainability, there are also financial gains to be had. Sustainability and profitability can co-exist. Even as far back as the 1990s, John Elkington had already coined the idea of the triple bottom line with business profitability centring around “people, planet and profit.”

    Sustainable business practices help brands connect with consumers. By genuinely caring about people and the planet, brands can differentiate themselves and stand out in a competitive space. When a brand can resonate and connect with the public, it usually leads to more sales and higher profitability. Essentially, being sustainable can act as a selling point to attract new customers. 
  • make a real change: There’s a lot of industry chatter about brands wanting to look like they’re making an effort to be more sustainable but they’re not living up to their promises. For example, Amazon claim to be dedicated to sustainability yet are regularly criticised for their excessive packaging. 

    When actions and words don’t match up, customers will see through their claimed efforts of becoming more sustainable yet without making real change. Measure the difference you make so this can be shared with your audience. 
  • understand your audience: it’s equally important to know your audience. Not everyone is as interested in sustainability – some demographics and consumer bases will put less of a premium on sustainability than others. There’s no denying that adopting more sustainable business practices will benefit the environment and future generations, but you might not see the same ROI if your audience is not as sustainability focused.

the steps sustainable ecommerce brands are taking.

1) an authentic brand ethos.

Being authentic makes all the difference with today’s shoppers. In fact, 91 percent of consumers worldwide ranked “communicating honestly about products and services” as the main influence on whether they buy from a brand. 

If you communicate your passion for sustainability as part of your brand, show evidence of how you live up to these claims. For example, the source of the materials, who created the product and the journey it took to get it to their door. This transparency will not only allow you to gain trust with your audience, but it will also help you attract those with aligned values. 

2) implement sustainable shipping.

Lightning-fast shipping has a lot to answer for when it comes to sustainable eCommerce. It’s worthwhile considering how you could make your shipping methods more sustainable. 

  • click and collect: Perhaps you could offer a click and collect service if you don’t already. This will allow local customers to visit a store or pick-up point for their product rather than opting for delivery. 
  • packaging and product weight: The size and weight of your packaging and products could also be considered. The lighter, the better!
  • route management: Have you considered how your products reach your customers? Are they delivered in the most travel efficient way? The transportation method should also be thought about. Whether it’s by road, air freight, sea or rail, are you using the most sustainable method for your products? Maybe you could aim to source a closer supplier where travel can be lessened. 

3) reduced packaging.

Consumers today are quick to pick up on the level of packaging a brand uses. Many have even taken to social media to shame those with excessive amounts of packaging. Proving that packaging has truly become part of the shopping experience, #Unboxing even has 2.6million tags on Instagram.

Alongside how much packaging is used, it’s crucial to consider the materials you opt for. From non-recyclable materials to single use plastic, the impact on landfills and harm to the environment – the list goes on. However, packaging plays a crucial role in eCommerce.

Look for packaging options that reduce the environmental impact and ecological footprint. This could include biodegradable plastics, bio-based plastics, cardboard or paper-based packaging to name just a few. 

4) reduce energy waste.

Sustainability needs to be considered across the whole business. Finding efficiencies in how your business operates is one way of placing sustainability at the forefront.

Whether it’s reducing energy waste across offices, finding renewable energy sources to use, minimising travel where possible or sourcing more. The use of reusable energy sources in warehouses is also an effective method of reducing energy waste. Using solar panels and other reusable energy sources can automatically lower your carbon footprint while accessing a more cost-effective form of energy. 

5) choose products that support sustainability.

This may not be viable for every brand, but have you considered mixing up your products for something more sustainable? Today, there are all sorts of sustainable alternatives on the market. For example, let’s imagine your brand sells sunglasses. Why not look at offering a range of eyewear made from recycled ocean plastic? Or bring refillable items into your product mix. This lends itself to the likes of skincare items, make-up, cleaning products and toiletries. 

These alternatives allow you to offer products your audience are already interested in but with a valuable sustainable edge. 

6) carbon offset service charge checkout.

Carbon offset schemes are being used more regularly, allowing shoppers and companies to neutralise their carbon footprints. One way this can be encouraged and supported is through an optional checkout service charge. By making it a quick and easy add-on to your customers’ shopping journey, shoppers are more likely to want to invest. 

In Shopify’s sustainability quest, they even offer their own app, Offset, which looks after this process for you. Allowing you to offset the carbon dioxide emissions from your shipments, Offset uses industry models to determine the level of CO2 released into the atmosphere for each shipment before charging you an amount per shipment to offset those emissions. 

7) ecommerce marketplace.

Have you considered reselling your used merchandise on an eCommerce marketplace? Getting a second life out of your resources is one way of increasing efficiency and reducing waste to increase your sustainability efforts.

Platforms could include Amazon, eBay, Facebook Marketplace or Etsy, with some being more suited than others based on your industry and offering.  

becoming sustainable: the difficulties large ecommerce businesses face.

With less stock, fewer stakeholders and simpler operational considerations, it’s much easier for a smaller eCommerce business to adapt their business model to become more sustainable. 

In addition, the very nature of your offering can also impact how sustainable you can be. For example, globally renowned brands like H&M and Zara have worked hard to improve their sustainability initiatives with conscious clothing lines. However, the fast fashion industry that they’re built upon goes against the grain of sustainability. 

On the other hand, smaller and midmarket DTC brands are better poised to make sustainability a core part of their business model. This can go a long way in helping them differentiate from big stores and eCommerce giants. 

ecommerce brands doing sustainability proud. 

stella mccartney

The Stella McCartney brand is committed to being responsible, honest and accountable. As part of their sustainable efforts, they strive to create desirable garments with the least impact by creating cutting edge materials and animal alternatives. In fact, the brand boasts having never used leather, fur, skin or feathers since their conception in 2001.

Alongside choosing organic cotton and going PVC free, they also use solar panels and LEDs in store. Innovators by nature, Stella McCartney have also created plant-based plastic for their garments and have made the move to plastic free packaging. 


Fitness brand Silou creates both premium and sustainable activewear essentials. A big part of Silou’s messaging is their respect that sustainability is a constantly moving target. In other words, what is sustainable now, may not be in the future. 

A key sustainability selling point, Silou claim to trace their clothing right back to the materials used and the people who made them, being completely transparent about the whole process along the way. 

They are also part of the 1% for the Planet – a global organisation that connects pounds and people to accelerate smart environmental giving.


Taking charge of sustainable packaging, Acopia stretches all the way back to 1975. They continue to work on becoming a carbon neutral company and push for others to follow.

Alongside this, they have installed solar panels in their warehouses while their products are eco-friendly and cost effective. They urge customers to not only pick packaging that is the right fit for the product, but understand the manufacturing, how far it has to travel to get to you, its accreditations and its ability to be recycled. These are all elements they offer in their packaging made of cardboard and recycled materials.

sustainability and your business.

Now you know more about sustainability in the eCommerce world, how suited is it to your brand? There are numerous ways that sustainable practices can be introduced into a business. Finding what works best for your success and your consumers is what is important. 

Shopify is vocal about their sustainability efforts. Building for the long term, they strive to play an active role in creating a low-carbon future. If you want to know more about sustainable eCommerce and how it could be introduced into your business, get in touch with our team of eCommerce experts. 

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