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Shipping and Fulfillment

10 Green Shipping Practices for Your Business

By Katie McCann

Over the last year in Canada, online shopping grew 20.7%; ecommerce sales shot to a record $3.9 billion in May 2020, 2.3% up from that April and a whopping 99.3% increase from February. And with lockdowns across the country, this isn't a shock. But it also further emphasizes the desperate need for green shipping practices across ecommerce businesses.

Why? The boom in online shopping has placed immense stress on the planet, with plastic packaging ending up in our oceans, harming marine life, and carbon emissions further contributing to global warming. 

So what can be done? How can businesses thrive in the age of ecommerce, without causing further harm to the environment? 

One practical solution is green shipping. In this article, we look at 10 ways to do just that – to the benefit of your businesses and the planet on which we run them.

Before diving in, let’s go over the impact that the ecommerce boom has on the environment.

How Does Ecommerce Impact the Environment?

It’s no secret that ecommerce, shipping, and fulfillment make a big impact on the environment. 

Think of all the steps that go into fulfilling an order – producing it, packaging it, and shipping it at the highest level. And then shipping is happening at breakneck speeds – hello, same-day delivery! – meaning more people are on the roads to get these deliveries where they need to be.

Let’s look at some numbers. In 2019, Amazon was estimated to have generated 465 million pounds of plastic packaging. Up to 22.44 million pounds of that has ended up in the world’s oceans and marine ecosystems, according to a report by Oceana. These plastics, which include air pillows, bubble wraps, and plastic mailers, are harmful to marine life, entangling animals or otherwise being consumed by them. 

That same year, the online shopping giant revealed that it emitted 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018. This amounts to about 85% of the emissions of a small country.

Paper packaging hasn’t been that much better. In a 2018 report by Fast Company, reusable packaging company Limeloop estimated that an average of 165 billion packages were shipped in the US annually, roughly equivalent to more than a billion trees’ worth of cardboard packaging. 

So, what’s a society that's grown reliant on online shopping and ecommerce to do? Go green, of course.

What is Green Shipping?

In a nutshell, green shipping is the use of sustainable packaging and delivery methods to minimize environmental impact. 

Now, everything we do on this planet will impact it in some way. But rather than actively contribute to harming the environment, businesses have the opportunity to practice more eco-friendly packaging and shipping methods instead.

The good news goes beyond doing good for the planet. It’s actually been proven that sustainable practices bode well for businesses in the long run. In a survey on Canadian consumer insights, 49% of respondents reported expecting businesses to be accountable for their environmental impact. 

Another survey reported that 81.7% of Gen Z and 75.5% of Millennial shoppers favour sustainability, while 70% of younger shoppers are willing to pay more for eco-conscious fashion brands.

Even better news? Making changes to make your operations a little more green is totally doable.

10 Green Shipping Practices for Your Business

Let’s look at green shipping practices as a way to reduce your business’ environmental impact. Here are some ways to apply eco-friendly packaging and green shipping practices to your business.

1) Switch to Eco-Friendly Packaging

There’s no way to ditch packaging entirely – you still want shoppers to feel like the items they purchased are new and enjoy an unboxing experience. But there are replacements you can make to plastic bubble wrap and air pillows.

Try biodegradable shopping peanuts or mushroom packaging to protect items. Corrugated paper packaging or honeycomb paper wrap are other great alternatives. Compostable mailer bags, such as those made by noissue, are better alternatives to the plastic versions.

When it comes to the boxes themselves, opt for those made of post-consumer recycled cardboard. Don’t forget to apply these eco-friendly packaging preferences to returns, too.

2) Reduce Your Packaging Size Altogether

We’ve all been there. You receive a giant box, but the actual product takes up about a quarter of the box. Pretty big waste of space.

There are plenty of good reasons to reduce the size of your packaging. It saves you packaging costs, since you’re using only as much material as necessary. It makes your packaging more efficient, reducing packaging void and the need for additional materials like packing peanuts and air pillows. The smaller size also means you can carry more packages in a single delivery trip, helping reduce carbon emissions.

It’s also better for customers, many of whom will appreciate the efficient use of packaging material. Less packaging also means less for them to deal with during recycling.

3) Work With a Green 3PL

A green third-party logistics company, or 3PL, can help immensely with sustainable shipping practices for your business, from sourcing eco-friendly packaging options to ensuring green shipping methods. 

An experienced green 3PL will also likely be working with other partners in the supply chain and trucking industry with the same commitment to the environment. These partners are likely to utilize optimum routes to reduce carbon emissions, green fuel sources, and more fuel-efficient practices. 

Since 3PLs also run warehouses, green companies will be implementing sustainable practices as well, such as storing inventory in locations most optimum to customers or using efficient tools within the warehouse.

Working with a 3PL that is also making efforts to go green will no doubt advance your efforts toward operating more sustainably.  

4) Forgo the Overbox

Items classified as SIOC, or “Ships In Own Container,” are delivered without the typical brown overbox used in shipping. Let’s say you’re selling a pair of shoes online. Instead of packaging the box of sneakers into another container for shipping, that pair is shipped directly in the box they come in. 

This cuts out excess packaging and waste, lowers the costs you spend on packaging material, and makes the experience better for your customers (again, no unnecessary boxes to recycle or throw out!)

5) Opt for Ground-Based Shipping Solutions

It may take longer for customers to receive their purchases, but ground-based shipping leaves a smaller carbon footprint compared to next-day or air-based shipping methods. If possible, refrain from next-day, air-based delivery, and opt for ground-based shipping as much as possible. 

This will require planning, including identifying where your customers are primarily based in and working with warehouses and fulfilment centres in those areas to help deliver purchases. But it’s also one of the most impactful ways to make your shipping more sustainable, as air-based trips are one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions. 

6) Ship Items in Bulk

Consider a strategy that involves encouraging customers to purchase items in bulk. This helps reduce the amount of packaging used, while encouraging them to plan their purchases more efficiently, whether that’s getting them to think about whether they really need the items, or inspiring them to plan future needs and purchases ahead. 

Customers can also utilize this option to share the purchase with family, roommates, or neighbours in the community. This also helps reduce the number of deliveries – and carbon emissions – per purchase.

7) Reconsider Returns

Returns are some of the biggest carbon emitters in ecommerce. When it comes to apparel, for instance, nearly half of shoppers purchase clothing in multiple sizes to see which best fits, then return the rest. This creates a significant carbon footprint, from excess packaging to additional transportation. If businesses do not have the logistics to resort and resell the returned item, this also increases the likelihood that the item would end up in a landfill. 

There are several creative ways to make returns more eco-friendly. Consider the aforementioned use of sustainable packaging options, and work with a green 3PL to minimize carbon emissions. 

If you sell clothing, try to be as precise as possible in your descriptions of the item’s fit and measurements to help cut down on returns. Bodi.Me is one such platform that makes this easy, by providing accurate size recommendations to shoppers. 

There’s also the option to offer returns with a fee, while some brands go the radical extra mile by not offering returns at all. This not only demonstrates a commitment to the environment, but also encourages shoppers to think more carefully about their purchases.

8) Look For Ways To Offset Carbon Emissions

Everything we do emits carbon, not least running our business. Using eco-friendly packaging, working with a green 3PL, and fine-tuning our returns strategy are all forms of reducing our carbon emissions as a company. 

But there are more formal ways to offset our carbon emissions—that is, to counterbalance our greenhouse gas emissions specifically by purchasing carbon offsets. This doesn’t reduce the emissions produced; rather, it helps fund initiatives aimed toward storing carbon, or removing them from the atmosphere. These offsets include tree planting or forest preservation, and even supporting clean, renewable energy.

One way to do this as a business is through platforms like Cloverly, which offers an easy, seamless way to neutralize emissions with every customer transaction. Cloverly works by calculating the amount of carbon that might be emitted from a purchase—factoring in package weight, shipping method and distance—and then matches those emissions with an offset project. It then makes the carbon offset purchase on behalf of your business—or your customers. 

9) Offer Customers a Way to Offset Emissions, Too

Another way to demonstrate your commitment to the environment is to get your customers in on carbon offsetting, too. There are platforms similar to Cloverly that lets you do this, such as Carbon Checkout, which lets customers contribute to carbon offsetting initiatives during the checkout process. 

10) Get Creative & Make Adjustments as Needed

The unique nature of your business will call for unique measures in the effort to become more sustainable. Some businesses, for example, may forego returns entirely; other businesses, on the other hand, may ask customers to pay a small additional fee to return an item.

Some businesses may choose not to offer expedited air shipping, while others might do so while requiring customers to contribute to carbon offsetting initiatives. 

Sometimes the solutions will lie in your supply chain, other times it will lie in your logistics, and others, still, will lie in inspiring more thoughtful shopping habits in your customers. The key is to keep an open mind, and be prepared to make adjustments to make your business and shipping practices more sustainable.

Final Thoughts on Green Shipping

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to running our business and making them more eco-friendly. But every small action and change is important. Put together, they all make a big difference to the health of our planet. There’s no discounting the value of one biodegradable mailer that’ll decompose in a couple of days, for instance, compared to one that’ll outlive us. 

Ecommerce has made it easier and quicker than ever before to purchase the things and services that sustain our lives. If we can leverage these benefits and care for the planet at the same time, then it’d be a win for us all.

Katie McCann
By Katie McCann

Katie is the Content Marketing Manager at Bolt, creating resources to help ecommerce businesses of all size thrive. When she's not tracking her online orders right to her doorstep, she's obsessing over her pandemic puppy and learning TikTok dances.