How To Make Eco-Friendly Changes In Your Ecommerce Or Retail Brand
What does it mean to be 'eco' friendly?
If your brand bases itself on doing as little harm to the environment as possible, or it's something you'd like to start working on, be warned: It's a slippery slope and a long one at that.
Luckily, it's not hard to make effective change within your business for the sake of the environment. It doesn't have to be a complete overhaul of everything. Baby steps are baby steps, but they're steps nonetheless.
In this article, you'll see:
- What being 'eco-friendly' actually means
- Sustainable packaging 101
- Examples of eco-friendly brands
But before we dive deep into the details of making a sustainable change, there are a few things that need to be cleared up:
Eco, sustainable, green, natural, environmentally friendly.
They're all great words, but they all have one big problem.
Each and every one of them lacks a clear and precise definition. To make problems even worse, many of us now have positive associations with words that don't mean what we think they mean.
Take the word 'Natural', for example. It's a buzzword we see put on food, cosmetics and many other things.
Cyanide is natural.
Arsenic is natural.
Trace amounts of these will kill hundreds of people.
But thanks to modern marketing, when many of us think 'natural', we think of rich green forests, or organic, unprocessed ingredients.
But do you really believe that the ingredients for your ‘natural’ shampoo come from a place like this?
This is the first step toward greenwashing, the process of using marketing jargon to promote a product as being better for the environment than it is.
Statements like 'organic' and 'certified' are only useful if backed up by widely recognised bodies that preside over said certifications.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), for example, is a globally recognised body that oversees the ethical and sustainable use of virgin and recycled paper pulp.
Should your brand decide to change a few things for the sake of the environment, be sure that your definitions are defined clearly - and that those definitions are communicated clearly.
A glossary and the use of industry-recognised seals can help educate a user and alleviate their confusion.
What It Means To Go 'Eco.'
Rome wasn't built in a day - and your brand isn't going to make an effective shift toward sustainability overnight. It's a long, drawn-out process that takes trial and error to align costs, workload and website marketing strategy.
The best way to even considering making a shift toward sustainability is to pick a MicroStrategy:
- Assimilation puts your environmental policy on your periphery and sees you confirming to changes that require as little financial investment and procedural overall as possible. Example: H&M
- Mobilisation allows stakeholders and their departments to do their own research and implement their own policies. At the same time, C-levels and executives are open to fundamental change. Example: The North Face
- Transition has a business reshape products, policies, processes, values and attitudes with sustainability as the 'north star', where it will continue to be the primary influence of future decisions. Example: Raylo
Regardless of why you want to make environmentally-friendly changes, it's important to remember that it won't be perfect at the start.
You may implement paperless invoices only to find that your customers hate it.
You may start distributing from a central location, only to find that it increases delivery times.
Trial and error are key here, but so is transparency.
Below you can see how Omdo studios have a page dedicated to transparency. Here, they source their materials, packaging, and even a cost breakdown of each garment.
Patagonia, who you'll hear more about later, aren't the most 'eco-friendly' brand on the planet, as some of their products are derived from unrenewable fossil fuels. They know this, and they communicate it.
This clear and transparent marketing communication is empowering to the consumer. They have all the information they need to make an informed choice.
Suppose your sustainable changes are complemented by clear, honest and transparent communication. In that case, you'll have broken down many barriers that many environmentally motivated consumers have.
Why Brands Should Lower Their Environmental Impact
Consumers nowadays are starting to think about where their products come from and where they go.
- Two-thirds of North American consumers prefer brands that care for the environment
- 72% of surveyed people said the environment is the responsibility of the individual and what they consume
- Nielsen states that almost half of US consumers are ready to change their consumption habits to save the environment
And companies (and governments) are starting to listen.
- Eco-friendly furniture certifications in the EU grew by over 50% from Q2'20 to Q3'20
- It's expected that electric vehicles will dominate the EU automarket by 2050
- The Japanese space agency has started making satellites out of wood to fight space junk
That's a lot of statistics, but the facts are clear - people give a damn about mother nature.
Based on non-circular systems, brands that refuse to innovate and don't want to evolve are sure to be left behind.
That's not to say that you need to redesign your entire product range from the ground up based on cutting edge, biodegradable materials, not at all.
Some brands strive to be at the forefront of sustainable innovation, but the truth is that it's just not feasible for many brands - and yours may be one of them.
What's important is to acknowledge that the traditional ways of selling a product are based on unsustainable practices - and that you try and change that.
And one of the best places to let sustainability seep into your businesses DNA is to rethink how you do packaging.
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Whether you're an ecommerce brand, D2C business, selling retail or a mixture of all of them, packaging will undoubtedly be an expense that your company carries.
Packaging is an excellent place to start your environmental action for several reasons:
- It's an ongoing expense
- The packaging is usually the first part of your product to be disposed of
- Less packaging bring direct and indirect savings
Again, sustainable packaging doesn't have to be about using revolutionary materials. The humble cardboard mailer box is more often than not, the most eco-friendly solution.
That's because it's already produced at mass, and it's easily recycled. The problem with relying on cardboard boxes isn't the material; the problem is that in most cases, there's a lot of wasted space inside the box.
And it's here that you can start to see the financial savings, both directly and indirectly, and the environmental savings.
For the environment, less wasted space means less material used. Less material used means less material to be processed, both in creating and recycling the paper pulp.
Consider working with a packaging engineer and designing packaging from the ground up. This ensures that you'll use the minimal amount of materials, but you'll also be able to cater to a broader number of SKUs.
But what happens when cardboard isn't the ideal solution? After all, manufacturing cardboard, even from recycled paper pulp, is an energy-intensive process. Cardboard isn't exactly the lightest material around.
Many apparel and fashion brands have moved away from the cardboard box and started using branded mailing bags. As most textiles are flexible and durable, the waterproofing and dust proofing offered by a mailing bag can be more than adequate.
Mailing bags are also lightweight, meaning fewer carbon emissions needed to move them around. There's physically less material than many other packaging options. This ultimately saves you space, both in your warehouse and in the back of a delivery truck.
As you can see, packaging is more than just a box. It’s also packing tape, void filler, distribution networks and warehouse fulfilment processes.
You can see how a few simple changes, such as material substitution or using fewer materials, can lower your environmental impact.
This begs the question, what other small changes can you make in your business that, over time, have a hugely positive effect on the environment?
Regardless of how minimal or significant your ideal eco-changes maybe, you're probably going to face resistance. Whether it's from old-fashion stakeholders or sceptical customers, you'll more than likely have to do a little convincing.
Here are some common counter-arguments you may encounter and how to deal with them.
Guilt and fear: Saying things like 'our children will be the victims of today's inaction', while accurate, won't win any hearts. Fear and guilt are products of a lack of understanding, so default to informing and educating.
Use data tastefully: While data-based decisions are the best decisions, it's important to remember that throwing numbers at vital decision-makers is a quick way to overwhelm them.
Rather than 'our industry is responsible for X% of carbon emissions', try rephrasing it to present opportunity. 'Sourcing alternative materials will help us generate more local jobs while also lowering our net carbon emissions'.
When you do end up having the above conversations, try to focus on alleviating reluctance, rather than condemning reluctance to change.
Use your existing 'eco-benefits': Chances are that you're already implementing some eco-friendly policies in your day to day operations. That may be as simple as using technology to sign digital documents; it might be as involved as switching to a more local manufacturing facility. You'll convince reluctant stakeholders if you can present some existing processes in an eco-friendly light.
Go 'full spectrum.':Remember that there's more to sustainable practices than just the materials that you use. Ethics plays a significant role in fostering sustainable decisions as your brand develops more.
- Warehouses can use solar panels to recharge electric material handling equipment
- Finance teams can only work with banks that don't profit from fossil fuels
- Factories can implement an in-house water recycling facility
- HR can start working with the community to clean up parks and gardens in the local area
Just about every department of many modern businesses can make some simple yet effective decisions to benefit the environment - it's just a matter of getting creative!
Examples Of Sustainable Brands
You've just read about a handful of ways that brands can make a difference to the environment by making small but significant changes over time. Here are a handful of brands of all shapes and sizes that have done precisely that.
Patagonia is making waves in the fashion industry, as well as it's outdoor-wear niche. It discourages customers from buying new and instead encourages them to buy their clothing second hand.
Patagonia knows that it takes many more resources to create a new product to meet up with demand, rather than sell an item as being used. They regularly create lookbooks using nothing but their own second hand gear that’s being resold.
The brand also goes one step further, educating customers on repairing damaged garments and giving them a new lease on life. Lower profits, yes, but this forward-thinking attitude keeps Patagonia products in use as long as possible - the exact opposite of ‘fast’ fashion.
Purye clothing: Purye clothing takes a second-hand material - boat sails - and turns them into clothing and luggage. Boat sails can only be recycled and repaired many times before they’re incinerated or put into landfill.
But Purye (Finish for 'sail') takes the material and extends its life by reshaping it into bags and other durable apparel. "The sails that we use have all been hand-picked in Finland, and they all carry their own story. We like to think the story continues with our creation" say the company founders, Jon and Niklas. Such marketing quotes are gold for the brand’s eco-orientated marketing strategy.
A unique and interesting material that's given a second lease on life. More importantly, an entire company whose primary raw material is something that'd otherwise be buried or turned into carbon emissions.
The Body Shop
Below you can see an example of The Body Shop's Enrich not exploit campaign that communities around the world celebrated as being genuine and effective in its goals:
This global franchise knows that it needs to understand its customers’ priorities and, as a result, provide a product that fits that demand.
The Body Shop’s products made from ethically and sustainably sourced ingredients (verified by independent auditors) have a good track record of environmental performance and social awareness.
They manage to market all of this without greenwashing.
Canadian brand Frankie that sells vintage and reworked women’s streetwear. Goodonyou.eco, a portal that assesses and rates the sustainability and ethics of fashion brands, rank Frankie as one of the best brands out there due to their ongoing social work, use of recycled clothing and the low carbon emissions in their supply chain.
Frankie makes this list because they combine three aspects of sustainability - people, materials and infrastructure. Many brands struggle to rework just one of these aspects to promote sustainability - Frankie has managed to do all three. As a result, they’re a brand that’s admired by fashion-savvy consumers with an eco-friendly conscience.
Feeling a little overwhelmed with all of the above? Here are the main takeaways to get the sustainability-ball rolling in your business:
- Define your buzzwords
- Pick a microstrategy
- Build off your existing eco-policies
- Start with packaging
- Prepare for resistance
- Effective change takes time, trial and error.
Over the next several years, you’re all but guaranteed to see more brands changing the way they operate with the goal of environmental welfare in mind. That’s because they don’t want to get left behind, and that consumers prefer to give money to a brand that does not harm.
Your brand, no matter its size or model, can do the same. It takes time, careful planning and an even bigger gut to make the jump, but a world of opportunity awaits when you do.
About the Author
Phil is a hairy Australian guy living in Warsaw, Poland. When he’s not helping Packhelp’s custom packaging be seen the world over, he can be found trying not to kill his plants or writing for his blog expatspoland.