Sustainability in ecommerce – how can online retailers reduce their environmental impact?

The Coronavirus pandemic continues to influence how we work, play and shop safely. As a result of the UK’s lockdown, social distancing rules and the ongoing reluctance of consumers to shop in the way they did before, the ecommerce market is experiencing unprecedented growth.

All forms of consumerism – including bricks and mortar, omnichannel and ecommerce retail – have an impact on the environment. The rapid growth recorded by the ecommerce sector is bringing the issue of sustainability quickly to the fore. Done well, heightened focus on sustainability can build brand reputation and add to the bottom line.

Increasing sustainability in ecommerce

As consumers continue to hold retailers accountable for upholding strong environmental and ethical standards, there are three key aspects of ecommerce activity where brands can really make a difference. Making changes to these has the potential to add value to both the brand and its customer experience.

1 – Packaging

For ecommerce businesses, packaging is essential for the safe transportation and delivery of products. However, producing high-quality packaging, with minimal impact on the environment, is becoming increasingly challenging, as demand for aesthetically pleasing, yet protective, packaging materials is increasing.

John Wetherall, of MacFarlane Packaging, who works closely with Cygnia on sustainable fulfilment options says, “Properly designed packaging, used effectively, can significantly reduce waste throughout the supply chain. When planned well, the right packaging will reduce shipment weights, product damage and returns rates, all of which contribute to achieving sustainability goals.”

Here are some practical steps you can take to reduce the impact of your packaging on the environment:

  • Bundle goods – where possible, consider bundling smaller goods together in one package. Provide incentives for customers to select delivery options which are efficient and minimise the need for multiple deliveries. It is also important to focus on finding ways to optimise trailer fill and minimise wasted vehicle space.
  • Reuse cartons – where you can, try to reuse shipping cartons and other packaging. You can do this by either reusing materials for further shipping or by putting processes in place to encourage customers to reuse the packaging.
  • Minimise excess packaging – often, customers will complain if too large a box is used to transport a small item. As such, large, medium and small packaging options are a necessity, and, with careful planning, these can be achieved without the need to stock an uneconomical amount of packaging variants.
  • Durable packaging – ensure your packaging is robust to minimise the risk of goods arriving damaged. This will improve customer satisfaction and reduce the risk of returns, removing the need for additional transport to redeliver items and mitigating the number of damaged items going to waste or landfill.
  • Recyclable packaging – select recyclable packaging materials and ensure this is clearly labelled, instilling your customer with confidence in how to dispose of the item. Polystyrene, as a non-recyclable material, should be avoided where possible. Paper tape should be used to seal boxes. It is also important to think about the printing on your packaging, as foil and litho-printed boxes cannot be recycled.


2 – Plastics

Earlier this year, the government announced that its new Plastic Packaging Tax would be set at a rate of £200 per tonne of plastic packaging found to contain less than 30% recycled content. This tax is designed to incentivise businesses to make use of recycled materials in the production of plastic packaging. It is also intended to stimulate increased demand for recycled materials and, in turn, encourage greater levels of recycling, reducing the levels of waste at landfill or incineration sites.

Plastics are still frequently used for both the external and internal packaging elements for products. Its impact is undeniable, with approximately 18bn lbs of plastics entering our oceans each year. However, there are substitutions for retailers to make to reduce their reliance on plastics:

  • Paper-based void fills – these can be recycled, acting as a sustainable solution to plastic air pillows. Providing consumers with clear information surrounding your packaging’s recycling options is very important in ensuring they dispose of the product correctly.
  • Recycled materials – the Plastic Packaging Tax will prompt brands to fast-track their adoption of recycled materials in packaging solutions. Now’s the time to show you’re ahead of the curve with sustainable packaging innovations.
  • Sustainable materials – think about how you could incorporate materials such as wood chippings, recyclable cardboard and paper into your packaging. Biodegradable and recyclable materials are creating new opportunities for you to differentiate your brand while adding to your environmental credentials.


3 – Delivery

Both ecommerce retailers and their customers depend on a good delivery service. Around two-thirds of consumers have suggested they would select a retailer based on the delivery options they have available. This has prompted many retailers to offer next-day delivery, or in some cases, same-day options. However, the increased speed at which products get from retailer to consumer, comes with an increased impact on the environment, which needs to be addressed by ecommerce retailers. Possible steps which could reduce this impact include

  • Waive returns – offer a discount, or other reward, should a customer choose to waive the ability to return items ordered online.
  • Encourage store collections and returns – as lockdown measures continue to ease, people are able to visit stores and return stocks more quickly and efficiently.
  • Reward slower shipping – provide incentives for slower shipping options, such as store credits or discounts, so you are able to consolidate more deliveries.
  • Climate-neutral shipping – use providers of climate-neutral shipping, such as DHL GoGreen or UPS carbon neutral.
  • Show emissions savings – show the environmental impact on different delivery options, allowing customers to see how opting for standard shipping over next-day will save X% on emissions.


As an online retailer, promoting your steps towards sustainable operations will help to increase customer loyalty and can even help to attract new customers.

For more information on ecommerce sustainability, or to see how Cygnia can help you to improve the sustainability of your operations, get in touch.