How can businesses can become more sustainable during peak online shopping season?

Across the globe, consumers are becoming more aware of the impact their purchases have on the planet. Australians are set to spend big on Christmas presents this year, and retailers need to take note, reports David Boyer.

Consumers are willing to spend more to align their shopping habits with their values. Yet, high-volume ecommerce brands can struggle to balance the demand for sustainable practices with the realities of packaging and shipping. 

In preparation for this year’s peak season, some of Australia’s leading sustainable retailers share their tips on the steps businesses can take now to be more sustainable.

A growing momentum for green

Consumers are increasingly recognising and making decisions based on the sustainability practices of a brand. With this in mind, retailers should consider long-term sustainability options for their business.

According to a recent study, 62 percent of younger consumers prefer to shop for sustainable and green products, while 82 percent say they would like their parcel packaging material to be recyclable. 

Ben Young, CEO and founder of reusable cup company, frank green, says sustainability is core to the business. Leading frank green’s mission ‘to rid the world of single use plastics’ is its ‘green team’, which meets fortnightly to maintain and progress the sustainability of frank green.

“They spearhead projects like changing appliances to be more environmentally friendly, monthly park clean-ups, team education on best recycling practices and how to compost,” explains Young.

“It’s really important to us to have sustainability at the forefront of business decisions. The green team keeps us accountable and makes sure it’s front of mind for everyone.”

Sustainability is also driving innovation at Salvos Stores. Since launching its online store last year, collectively, Salvos Stores has listed more than 185,000 items online and sent more than 92,000 individual orders.

“Sustainability means so much to us at Salvos Stores, from both an environmental and a social perspective,” says Lucas Ferrier, ecommerce manager, Salvos Stores.

Salvos diverts more than 38 million items every year from landfill, through its network of 350 stores around Australia and its online store.

It has also invested in Waste-to-Energy technology in South Australia, with the diversion of 471 tonnes of material away from landfill and mitigation of 170 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the first year. Energy-efficiency programs have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 1700 tonnes per annum nationally, with further energy efficiency and solar projects in the pipeline to transition to green energy.

Like Salvos Stores, social sustainability is the driving force behind Welcome to Country, a not-for-profit online marketplace for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander experiences and products. Launched in December 2019 as a marketplace specifically dedicated to connecting travellers with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tourism operators, the organisation pivoted into e-commerce in the wake of COVID.

To date, Welcome to Country has featured more than 1000 products from more than 110 businesses that are all Indigenous-owned or pay royalties to artists. 

“As an Aboriginal led business, sustainability is very important,” says Jason Eades, CEO of Welcome to Country.

“In the next 10 years we aim to generate $10 million in revenue for Aboriginal people in communities, via direct employment, sales for experiences and products, as well as services procured via Aboriginal providers.”

Waste not, want not

Increasingly, retailers have to deal with sustainability on two fronts that impact customer perceptions: their own actions and the actions of the manufacturers. According to a recent report, 20 percent of shoppers will choose one online retailer over another because they are taking action to reduce their impact on the environment. With this in mind, shipping processes increasingly need to address customers’ growing expectations around sustainable packaging.

By moving toward product packaging that is reusable and returnable, consumers can skip the rubbish altogether and feel better about their purchasing decisions.

Shipping software platforms can help identify multiple orders from the same customer, which allows retailers to combine products into one package and reduce packaging waste.

Hayley De Angelis, creative director and owner of Cleanse and Co, says reusable and recyclable packaging has never been as prominent.

“With the strong mindset of caring for the environment, we have implemented eco-friendly waste solutions to minimise all plastic packaging by investing in a recycling machine that turns all our cardboard rubbish into reusable packing material.”

Cleanse and Co recently purchased a cardboard recycle machine that turns flattened cardboard boxes into shredded paper perfect for packing and for use instead of plastic wrap. For De Angelis, the machine not only acts as an environmental initiative but saves major costs and time.

Making the last mile count

Beyond packaging, shipping is another area where retailers can make significant sustainability gains. Ecommerce brands should be familiar with how their carriers are approaching sustainability as customers will see carriers as part of the brand’s environmental footprint.

Increasingly, carriers understand they must offer low-carbon services for their clients, with many investing in electric vehicles and choosing to offset their carbon emissions. Shipping platforms can send items in bulk, connect with shipping partners who offer carbon neutral deliveries, and connect with local carriers – minimising air and road miles.

Earlier this year, Australian bodycare and cosmetic brand Miessence launched its ‘Shop & Save’’ initiative, offering increased discounts as the order value grows.

According to Alf Orpen, chief entrepreneur officer (CEO), of Miessence, the initiative was introduced to encourage customers to purchase larger orders less frequently.

“By offering this initiative we are able to reduce our logistics packaging, reduce our freight carbon emissions impact and our customers can enjoy affordable natural and organic health, beauty and home care products. It’s a win for our planet, a win for our company, and a win for our customers.”  

Preparing for peak

Ahead of this year’s peak retail season, frank green’s Young advises retailers to do a packaging review to make sure what they are using is as environmentally friendly as possible.

For seasonal gifting, don’t create new packaging that is only useful for the season and will leave consumers with lots of leftover packaging.

“If you want to be unique and cater to the peak season, don’t change the fundamental structure of the packaging. Add in things that you will use again. This can include gift cards that you can bring back the following year or wrapping that is more suited to all-year gifting. This way it doesn’t date, and you can use it year-round.”

For Salvos Stores, the products of which are primarily donated, the organisation experiences peaks in both supply and demand throughout the year. 

“During peak donation periods such as spring, Christmas and New Year, it can be a challenge for our teams to keep up with the volume of generous donations provided by the community,” says Ferrier. 

“We approach this challenge cross-functionally, working collaboratively with our logistics, warehouses, call centres, communications and retail teams to ensure that we can manage the supply of donations during these times.” 

From a sales perspective, Ferrier says preparation and communication is key. 

“Ensuring that we have sufficient supply of sustainable packaging materials available at our 250-plus micro-fulfilment centres (stores) on hand to meet the increased order demand and our customers are aware of any potential delays to their orders [is key],” he says.

“With longer lead times for production on some custom packaging materials, getting your order in early, and ordering enough supplies, is important in the lead-up to peak season. Another step retailers can take is to train your team’s best-practice packaging now. Don’t wait until peak season hits.”

Adopting a greener mindset

Sustainability is here to stay and, the sooner you act, the stronger your brand’s competitive position in the future. It doesn’t have to necessarily reshape the entire business model to be sustainable. Lots of small, targeted changes can compound into big changes. Young advises businesses to be prepared for the time and cost impact it will have.

“It’s not always easy and you have to keep at it and keep the momentum up. You have to commit to a goal and the cause. Keep an open mind and be prepared for it to cost more.”

Geneva Valek, founder of Shampoo with a Purpose, advises brands to “think from the bottom up”.

“A good business owner/manager will know (at least roughly) how to do every job that happens within their company. Working on these micro levels will help you increase efficiency and will show you what you can do to improve your sustainable practices.

“Being sustainable isn’t about spending more money on expensive products, it’s about making good use of what you have and reusing where possible.”

Edible Beauty’s founder and CEO Anna Mitsios, says companies need to think about how they can become more sustainable at each step of their production and sales process.

“This does not need to be an incredible overhaul of any existing practice, rather slow but steady and consistent improvements in their processes to become more sustainable.

“Customers will definitely value all small and large changes that are being made. Just becoming conscious of how to make a positive impact on the environment will have a significant impact on future business practices.”

David Boyer is the country manager, ShipStation, ANZ.