If you were to ask any business owner to cite the biggest challenges facing their organization right now, you might be surprised by their response. Take the survey conducted by payment solution provider takepayments, for example, which asked the leaders of over 1,000 UK businesses that exact question. While you might’ve expected finances, technology and recruitment to be among their primary concerns, a much bigger proportion (22%) saw environmental and sustainability challenges as a bigger fish to sauté (second only to the ongoing impact of COVID-19).
Still scarred by the effects of that very pandemic and facing growing warnings of an impending climate crisis, digital consumers, too, are more preoccupied with sustainability than ever before. In fact, 60% of global consumers rate sustainability as an important factor in buying decisions. So, in an increasingly eco-conscious world, how can online businesses offset their environmental impacts and maximize their sustainability models in 2022 and beyond?
Set achievable goals
Before you put a sustainability strategy into place, make sure you have tangible, attainable targets to work towards. There’s zero benefit in committing to net zero emissions by 2023, for example, if you have no idea of how you’re going to get there or whether it’s even feasible. Small, practical changes that gradually reduce your environmental impact are better than an all-guns-blazing approach that promises the earth and fails to deliver.
Sustainability can’t be achieved overnight, so don’t try to do everything all at once. Think about where you can make the biggest gains (or, more accurately, the biggest losses) and the quickest wins, and tailor your strategy accordingly. For example, you may think that overhauling your packaging will be a costlier, longer-term goal, but that empowering your teams to work remotely more often offers a short-term win. Every little helps, as they say.
Embrace remote working
Hastened by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rapid adoption of remote technologies has facilitated a move towards home-based working for many businesses, with others endorsing a hybrid approach (where home and office working overlap). Armed with the freedom to choose their own working patterns, many digital teams are opting out of a daily commute, meaning their personal emissions could be reduced by up to 80%.
Remote working is really only possible through cloud-based technology (since it enables employees to access and share company files from any location) and the upside of this is that cloud computing is far better for the environment than traditional on-premises solutions — in fact, it could be as much as 98% more carbon-efficient. That goes for website hosting, too, with cloud and SaaS hosting providers such as Cloudways offering fast, reliable and energy-efficient hosting packages.
Did you know that 1 in 5 products purchased online are returned? This figure is even higher in the online fashion industry, where the practice of ‘bracketing’ (buying multiple versions of the same product with the intention of returning at least some of them) is driving even greater returns. And while on the one hand a simple, hassle-free return policy will boost conversions by increasing buying confidence, encouraging a buy-to-return culture comes at significant cost to the environment; more returns means more delivery trucks on the road, while many unwanted purchases end up in landfill.
Optimizing your product content (by adding size guides and multiple zoomable images, for example) to ensure shoppers are fully informed before clicking ‘add to cart’ is one way of reducing return rates, but you could go the way of the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, which actively discourages returns (using its Worn Wear initiative) with a focus on care and repair — extending the life cycle of a product while cutting down on returns, trimming waste and reducing the CO2 emissions caused by manufacturing.
Two-thirds of consumers consider it important that the products they buy come in recyclable packaging, so they expect businesses to make sustainable choices when it comes to boxing up their products (let’s face it, each of us has signed for delivery of a pocket-sized item in a box large enough to fit a small canoe!).
Wasteful, non-recyclable packaging isn’t easily disposed of, and the processes involved are inherently harmful to the environment, so aim to reduce unnecessary packaging and shift towards using recycled (and recyclable) packing materials. Amazon, for example, introduced its Frustration-Free Packaging initiative to minimize waste and ensure damage-free delivery, which has reduced the average weight of its outbound packaging by 36% (the equivalent of 1 million tons of packaging material).
Offer green shipping options
An inescapable side-effect of our increased shift towards online shopping is the strain it puts on shipping services. And with more delivery drivers on our roads to keep up with an increasing demand for speedy deliveries, the impact on our environment can be significant. Since many consumers are committed to making sustainable choices when they shop online, they may even be prepared to pay more for an eco-friendly delivery option.
Many carriers like FedEx (with its EarthSmart initiative) participate in ‘green’ shipping programs, ensuring their vehicles and their facilities meet strict standards for environmental sustainability (such as using electric or hybrid delivery trucks). Partnering with a shipping carrier that prioritizes sustainable practices will reduce the indirect environmental impact of your online store.
Offset your impact
Carbon emissions might be unavoidable, but you can often offset the impact of your footprint by making an equivalent CO2 saving elsewhere. Many businesses ‘give back’ by investing in renewable energy projects, conservation activities or community initiatives, which help to mitigate their cumulative impact on the environment. When an organization proclaims they are ‘carbon neutral’ (often referred to as ‘net zero’) this doesn’t mean they’re emitting zero greenhouse gasses; it probably means they’re counteracting these emissions in another way.
To make carbon offsetting even easier, programs like NativeEnergy help businesses meet their sustainability goals by assessing their carbon footprints and allowing them to invest in community-based projects around the world that seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As a digital business, promoting these initiatives not only helps to offset your carbon impact, but it shows your potential customers that you’re committed to supporting a sustainable future.
If you’re confident enough to make bold claims about your commitment to sustainability, be sure you can back them up. Case in point? Innocent drinks (a smoothie producer whose cutesy UK advertising campaign talked of “fixing up the planet”) is in fact owned by Coca Cola, the biggest plastic polluter in the world. Unsurprisingly, their vague and unsubstantiated claims (despite making for a catchy jingle) were quickly pulled apart by environmentalists and, ultimately, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA).
Such claims are not only unhelpful, but if they contain a hidden trade-off (for example, your product contains 100% vegan ingredients but it comes in non-recyclable packaging) the effect of greenwashing can be even more damaging. In short, don’t oversell your green credentials. Increasingly eco-conscious consumers are wising up, and they’ll see right through false, misleading or ambiguous claims. Avoid terms like “environmentally friendly”, “natural” or “ethical” (these are cloudy and meaningless) and focus on making tangible changes.
In summary, while environmental and sustainability concerns might seem like one of the biggest challenges facing digital businesses today, there are a number of ways to generate a more sustainable business model, from the way your teams work to the way you offset your impact. But remember to set sustainability goals that are tangible and achievable, otherwise you could be accused of greenwashing or failing to fulfill your environmental promises.