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A More Sustainable Side of Shopping

Guest Blog by Ian Lifshitz

Reflecting on the 2013 holiday shopping season, it’s clear that U.S. consumers are shifting how and where they buy.  According to comScore, online holiday season sales rose 10 percent from 2012, including an 18 percent increase in online spending on Cyber Monday and a 15 percent increase on Black Friday.

E-commerce is expected to continue flourishing, with mobile transactions accelerating and online retail sales projected to reach $434 billion over the next four years.  Of course online shopping is convenient, but we are learning that consumers can also feel good about its big picture environmental impact.  A Carnegie Mellon University study found that E-commerce is the less energy-consumptive option roughly 80 percent of the time, when compared with brick and mortar shopping.

As retailers expand their online capabilities, they should explore ways to promote the intrinsic environmental benefits of shopping online.  Here are five ideas that online retailers might share with their customers:

  1. Less energy is consumed during the overall transport process.  Purchasing online results in a reduction of miles driven during a product’s journey to the consumer.  For a brick and mortar purchase, a shopper must travel to and from the store to purchase items that required shipment from a central warehouse.  Online purchases remove consumer travel from the environmental impact equation while using delivery services that optimize routes for fuel efficiency. The U.S. Postal Service and private companies like UPS already travel these routes, with some urban environments even incorporating walking into their normal deliveries. All of these elements result in a reduced carbon footprint.
  1. Packaging can be repurposed.  Packaging used to ship purchases to a consumer’s home can be repurposed in a numerous ways.  Throughout the year, boxes can be re-used to ship gifts or care packages to loved ones in other locales, used to wrap up gifts for in-person giving, or employed for off-season storage.  A lesser known use for some shipping supplies is fertilizer; certain shredded paper can actually be incorporated directly into compost.
  1. Responsibly-sourced materials are increasingly available.  The pulp and paper industry is continually innovating around sustainable packaging, light-weighting packaging while maintaining strength to increasing proportional use of post-consumer content.  The industry is also responding to demand for renewable packaging materials that are responsibly grown.  For example, paper and board packaging can be made from virgin fiber that is sustainably sourced from renewable plantations.  Certain climates, like those around the earth’s equatorial band, are optimal for accelerated tree growth and shortened maturity cycles for tree harvesting.
  1. Retailers are responding to consumer input.  Online retailers are actively reducing their environmental impact in response to consumers expressing interest in more options in package selection.  For example, Amazon is working with manufacturers to give customers the option to receive products boxed in “Frustration-Free Packaging” or to have items consolidated into one shipment to reduce the overall amount of packaging materials used.
  1. Online marketplaces foster reuse.  When considering online shopping and efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle, don’t forget to look beyond the packaging to the products themselves.  Giving another life to a used product through the emerging sharing economy is a wonderful way shoppers can exercise their eco-friendly muscle.  Online services like eBay, Craigslist and Etsy’s vintage section, enable buying and selling of (re)used goods such as books and collectibles, which can make for some thoughtful and cherished gifts.

The migration to online shopping may be rooted in convenience, but the rising trend in awareness around responsible purchasing cannot be ignored.  Those retailers who understand and embrace this view will be better positioned for a successful future.

Ian Lifshitz is the sustainability director for the Americas for Asia Pulp & Paper Group (APP).

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