Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

What we can do about ecommerce’s sustainability problem?

By Francesca Grillini, ecommerce activation lead, Reckitt

Ecommerce has a sustainability problem. One that is increasingly coming to the fore, as consumers demand more accountability from their brands.

With every ecommerce purchase, people are effectively opting for excess packaging and environmentally taxing delivery. Every basket payment contributes to the carbon emissions generated by the power required to run the internet.

So while the past decade saw many FMCG brands recalibrating towards an ecommerce-first approach, now is the time for brand owners to take the sustainability factor into account more carefully in their decisions.

Especially in FMCG, brands are increasingly adopting a more user-centric approach. But if we put the user, the people we want to reach, at the heart of our development, then sustainability also needs to be put front and centre – after all, it’s what people demand.

More than a linear add-on

This means that brands not only need to shift how they expand and integrate ecommerce solutions – but also that they realise the possibilities ecommerce offers. Ecommerce tends to be seen as a linear add-on, where it should be given its rightful place as part of an overall solution.

So the first step in tackling the commerce sustainability challenge is to make sure it is integrated in the 360 process of deciding what product, system or services people need. We need to ask ourselves right from the start, not only if something is suitable for ecommerce, but also if it fits with our sustainability goals and requirements. You can’t do this if you see ecommerce as the mere act of putting a product in a box and shipping it. Ecommerce needs to be far more integral to the entire customer journey.

The beauty of ecommerce, though, is that it offers incredible possibilities to drive a sustainable future. Ecommerce can be very effective and actionable. In online retail, we are able to test and trial; we’re agile and ultimately direct and fast. You launch a product and service and can measure its effectiveness immediately. You have a direct line of communication on how things are playing out – whether they’re landing or not.

It also allows you to take small steps. It can be challenging, and daunting, for global brand owners to embrace change at scale. The ecommerce channel offers a toe-in-the-water, an ideal testing ground for new eco-friendly SKUs that might have had to overcome bigger hurdles in the in-store environment.

For example, Vanish launched its Vanish Multipower Tabs last year specifically for online shoppers, with a newly developed compressed powder version of its product and bespoke ecommerce packaging. It was a small initial trial but showed promising results.

Using the channel in this way allows global brand owners to innovate at a steady pace; it highlights the approaches that work, those that have potential for scale and to change the business more long-term. FMCG companies are notoriously the massive tankers that take a long time to turn; but ecommerce affords them a unique nimbleness to hurry that change in direction along.

Enabling a more service-led approach

Another area that ecommerce can help drive change in is transitioning businesses within FMCG away from solely consumables. Rather than just thinking of sustainability solutions in terms of refill, reuse and recycle, the industry increasingly needs to look at how we can change towards service business models – how can we provide a solution to people’s problems without necessarily selling them a specific product. Online, and the direct line that ecommerce has into people’s homes will be a vital part of this approach.

For example, with US disinfectant spray Lysol we started providing information as a service alongside the traditional products. The brand provides regional and city-wide ‘Germ-Casts’ across North America and Canada that allow people to tap into live and forecasted information for cold and flu outbreaks.

Moving to service models in this way will be a core component in making the sector as a whole more sustainable.

So while the need to tackle ecommerce’s sustainability challenges are urgent if FMCG owners want to remain relevant to tomorrow’s users, it in fact presents more of an opportunity than a problem. If businesses embrace this opportunity, ecommerce could play a crucial role in driving sustainability solutions on.