The Greening of E-Commerce

E-commerce by its nature involves a lot of packaging and shipping, and e-commerce companies can’t always control how their products get sent. There are ways to make these processes more sustainable, however, and the benefits might well be worth the effort.

“E-commerce won’t stop growing anytime soon,” said Mark Bastiaanssen, CEO of Shiptimize.

“Many models are currently being tested, from hyperlocal warehouses to drone deliveries, eco-friendly urban delivery services and many more,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “All these innovations revolve around reducing time to delivery and cost of delivery. Fuel cost is still a major cost component of transportation. Mass introduction of electric vehicles will totally change that cost structure.”

Eventually, the system surrounding e-commerce is likely to become more environmentally-friendly, though it’s difficult to predict the timing of that shift.

“That will happen,” said Bastiaanssen. “The question is when — but that will be the moment that the entire logistic landscape will change and become a lot less taxing on the environment.”

Green Packaging

A large part of the environmental impact of e-commerce is in the form of packaging, so addressing that issue is a good place to start.

“Eco-friendly packaging is one of many small ways we can all make a difference,” said Aliece Dorsch, a partner with Ecology Packaging.

The growth in e-commerce has meant a significant growth in packaging, as well as its potential impact on the environment.

“In the past a manufacturer would ship a case of 12 products to the retail store, unpack the case, and bale the now-empty box for recycling,” recalled Dennis Salazar, president of Salazar Packaging.

“Those 12 products are now shipping DTC — direct to the consumer — and 12 boxes are created to get them there,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Obviously, the 12 boxes are smaller compared to the 12-pack case, but how many of them are recycled, as they should be?”

Companies that want to make their packaging more sustainable can begin by analyzing what they’re currently doing, and then looking at ways their packaging practices can be improved.

E-commerce companies must “start by evaluating their current practices, and then start determining where they can start incorporating more sustainable shipping materials,” Ecology Packaging’s Dorsch told the E-Commerce Times. “If that task seems too daunting, just start slowly with smaller sustainable changes and make a commitment to keep moving towards sustainability. Every day, more sustainable options become available.”

It helps, as well, if a company makes a determination about what exactly it thinks “sustainability” means and then considers how it can be achieved.

“If you ask five different people what that means to them, you are likely to receive five different answers,” said Salazar. “Is it the recyclability, the reusability, the recycled content, certifications? We typically find out what is important to our customer and build that into the design and specifications. We also always focus on minimal material use through conservative design that protects and presents the product being shipped in a visible, attractive manner.”

Another way e-commerce companies can make a difference is by choosing eco-friendly, sustainably sourced and recyclable materials for packaging.

“I can’t leave out our concern about plastic and poly in packaging because we are learning more and more about it’s extreme negative impact,” said Dorsch. “One source estimates over 9 million tons of plastic being dumped into the ocean each year. Additionally, micro-particles of plastic are being found everywhere. We don’t fully understand the negative impact of micro-particles yet but, what is known is not good.”

For companies that don’t know where to begin, there are eco-friendly packaging suppliers that can help with the process.

“In the beginning, the No. 1 suggestion is to engage an experienced green packaging supplier to help you get off on the right foot,” said Salazar. “If your packaging already exists, consider redesigning and rebranding. Businesses grow and evolve. Products being shipped change in terms of shape, sizes and configurations. If your packaging is more than a few years old, it may be time to tweak the design and functionality without losing your brand identity.”

All of the small steps that companies take in greening their packaging could eventually lead to big changes.

“Such great strides are being made each year,” said Dorsch. “It’s impressive and exciting. We all see sustainably sourced paper, and that industry is just becoming more and more eco-friendly, which is fantastic. Additionally, we are seeing shipping supplies made out of things like cornstarch, cane, seaweed and more. These materials offer alternatives that we are just learning about. It’s exciting, and they hold great promise.”

The Shipping News

Shipping is at the heart of e-commerce, so any move to make the industry more sustainable will have to focus on that.

“The general rules are simple: Distance, speed and scale determine the cost and the environmental footprint of shipping,” said Shiptimiz’se Bastiaanssen. “Offering delivery options where the customer picks the shipment up at a location of their convenience is usually less costly and has less impact on the environment. The delivery company simply doesn’t have to go miles to deliver at your doorstep, often multiple times.”

Offering slower, more environmentally friendly delivery options can be another good place to start. These options put some of the responsibility for greening the shipping process into the hands of consumers, who can decide how important sustainability is to them.

“Offering ‘slow’ delivery options can be perfectly fine if there is no time pressure,” noted Bastiaanssen. “If the logistic company has less time pressure to deliver, they have more space to maximize efficiency of delivery. This results in lower cost and fewer miles per delivery. We also see more and more local delivery solutions by bicycle. It might not always be a solution for all shipments, but being conscious when you use a certain delivery service does help in decreasing environmental impact.”

Vivian Wagner

Vivian Wagner has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. Her main areas of focus are technology, business, CRM, e-commerce, privacy, security, arts, culture and diversity. She has extensive experience reporting on business and technology for a varietyof outlets, including The Atlantic, The Establishment and O, The Oprah Magazine. She holds a PhD in English with a specialty in modern American literature and culture. She received a first-place feature reporting award from the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists.Email Vivian.

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