by Ivan Kot, Customer Acquisition Director and IT Solution Manager at Itransition
Sustainable commerce powered by responsible fulfillment and consumption is rapidly turning into a trend. There’s a huge push from employees who want to work for environmentally-friendly companies, governments that introduce new environmental laws and taxes, and, finally, customers who are shifting their preferences towards those businesses that have weaved ethics and consciousness into their supply chains.
There’s the other side of the coin — many people aren’t able to follow the principles of slow life with the products of the mass market being the only convenient and/or affordable option they have. In this case, it’s the responsibility of mass market brands to fine-tune their moral compass and become leaders who provide people with eco-friendly options.
So, what’s the roadmap for sustainable commerce?
1. Expose sustainability and transparency in your brand storytelling.
First of all, be honest with yourself and formulate what you can really do for going sustainable based on your available resources. Define the timeframes within which you’ll be able to embed new practices across the entire supply chain. If they take too long to roll out, you can always start with partnering with an environmental organization or include products from local farmers and manufacturers into your assortment in an effort to decrease the detrimental effect of globalization.
Once you have a clear stance on sustainability and have undertaken certain actions to support it, you can make it a part of your brand storytelling and communicate new values to customers. Make sure to consistently reflect your message across all the channels where you are present.
The next step is to begin practicing a transparent approach to how you do things, be it your suppliers, manufacturers, materials, product contents, or pricing. You can use your social media accounts to explain how prices for particular products are set, tell about countries and factories your products are made in, and share what difficulties you encounter on your path to sustainability.
Go beyond a ‘Made in…’ label and expand products’ information to:
- A full list of used materials or ingredients
- A share of local materials
- A product’s route from the factory to the customer
- Animal testing information
- A guide to recycling the product and its packaging
This way, just another T-shirt or a vase turns into a product with a history and helps customers make smarter decisions about their consumption.
2. Pivot to the circular economy.
The circular economy strives to eliminate waste and helps keep materials viable for as long as possible by encouraging reuse, repair, and recycling. For instance, apparel brands Patagonia and H&M encourage customers to bring their old clothes for remanufacture. Patagonia also provides an online platform where customers can resell used clothes or even request their repair. Belgian maternity and kid’s wear brand Tale Me understands the problem of rapidly growing children and specific clothing requests of pregnant women and rents clothes rather than sells them.
Such an approach is possible in terms of cost-effectiveness when products or materials are:
- Modular, and separate components can be changed or reused instead of replacing the whole item
- Composed of reusable and easily accessible materials instead of those that are scarce or of low quality and hence impossible or costly to regenerate
- Composed of biodegradable materials
The true impact of the circular economy principles can be achieved by means of advanced technologies. They help a circular exchange ecosystem by accumulating and sharing data, integrating new channels for recycling and remanufacturing, optimizing materials exchange, mitigating risks, and communicating with connected devices.
It can be a good idea to partner with a technology vendor that preaches the circular economy principles and offers technologies designed with sustainability in mind. For instance, the technology giant SAP has launched the Climate 21 program to empower its customers with the tools that have sustainable metrics embedded into them. The company has a strong footprint in the commerce industry, with SAP Commerce consultants facilitating the technology implementation for responsible design, fulfillment, recycling, and reuse.
Another crucial point on the path to sustainability and the circular economy is packaging optimization and waste-cautiousness. The implementation of these principles requires minimization of waste, like avoiding excess packaging or reducing empty space, and using biodegradable, renewable or recycled materials.
If you can’t switch to eco-friendly packaging because it won’t protect your products during delivery, be honest with your customers about it and explain how you make even small steps towards more sustainable options, like making it possible to return packages for refill or recycle.
Additionally, consider making an unboxing experience fun. Share an amusing fact or declare love and appreciation of your customers on a box, provide visuals on how one’s recycling efforts contribute to the common cause, or design your packaging to be turned into a cat house, a bird feeder, or a clothes hanger.
3. Reinvent your shipping and returns.
The rise of online shopping that led to billions of packages shipped all over the world has a significant environmental impact. It makes shipping optimization a critical undertaking on the path to sustainability.
There are a few options companies can start with. For example, online shops can offer an environmentally-friendly shipping option. As a rule, such an option can mean slower shipping aimed at consolidating more orders for batch shipping to a certain location or involve extra charge. Obviously, extra charge is not that enticing when customers have a ‘free shipping’ alternative. However, when they understand that extra funds will be used for minimizing carbon footprint or for delivery with climate-neutral shipping options, like DHL GoGreen or DPD Total Zero, some of them will go consciously for more expensive delivery. At the same time, when customers choose an express delivery, you can show a disclaimer about how this option hurts the environment and can lead to pollution in their residential area.
Another pain point is returns, which double the detrimental impact of shipping. The best way to reduce the number of returns is to provide rich product descriptions, detailed images, and catwalk videos. Encourage your customers to share their reviews and unboxing experiences so that other buyers will see how the product looks in real life. Choosing the wrong size is one more extremely frequent reason for returns. To mitigate it, do your best to develop size guides, provide size references for home decor items, etc. One more option is to apply drastic measures and make returns a little bit harder to make or offer a discount to go with a no-returns policy. In this case, customers will think twice prior to ordering multiple sizes or options just to choose one or even none.
Sustainable commerce is already there, with some retailers making baby steps and some engaging into complete reinvention. On the whole, each retailer has come to realize that sustainability measures are unavoidable as they will be imposed by new regulations and a growing number of eco-conscious consumers.
Ideally, it should be a two-way cooperation. Conscious customers should encourage companies to translate green values into concrete actions, while conscious companies should educate their customers about how to go sustainable by creating experiences that go beyond just purchasing a product.
Ivan Kot is Customer Acquisition Director and IT Solution Manager at Itransition, focusing on business development in verticals such as Business Automation, and cutting-edge tools such as Blockchain of Business. He began his career as a developer, taking different positions in both web and mobile development projects, and eventually shifted focus to project management and team coordination. Ivan’s everyday motto is: if something has to be done, it has to be done right.