5 Steps to Introduce Sustainability in Your Brand

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

Did you know that more than two-thirds of Americans consider sustainability when making a purchase?

As our pressing environmental situation has gained attention in politics and the media, today's shoppers are making an effort to vote for a greener future with their spending by supporting brands that position themselves as ethical and sustainable.

But what really makes a brand "sustainable"?

One of the metaphors frequently used to explain sustainable development is not as a destination, but as a journey towards a more ecologically oriented and socially equitable world.

Each unique business will have a unique journey towards sustainability, however, there are basic steps that every brand can take to kickstart the process and begin reaping the benefits of increased sales, community, and loyalty that come with social and environmental commitment.

In this article, I'll be sharing 5 actions every e-commerce brand can take to introduce sustainability into their business. This guide is only a brief overview, so be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to be notified of future in-depth posts on these topics!

1. Begin with transparency

Transparency is the critical first step of sustainability in business. Customers can’t know about a company’s sustainability without transparency, and business owners can't set clear and actionable sustainability goals without a clear understanding of where their business is currently at.

When sustainability-focused customers measure up a brand to see if it's genuinely sustainable, they look for clear information and reporting on a brand's website that show a positive, measurable impact on all the stakeholders impacted by their businesses, including workers, community, and the environment.

However, transparency shouldn't only include information about all of the good your brand is already doing it should also include the opportunities that still must be addressed.

By leveraging clear and verifiable transparency in your brand, you'll be able to set yourself apart from the many businesses that claim to be sustainable for marketing purposes without making true efforts to improve. (In the sustainability space, this is known as "greenwashing").

But what does transparency look like in practice? As an e-commerce brand, the opportunities to incorporate transparency into your business and marketing efforts are plentiful.

Aside from publishing traditional quarterly or bi-annual sustainability reports, some other ways to incorporate transparency into your brand could be to create content such as behind-the-scenes footage of your supply chain, blog posts detailing business processes, or interviews with workers in your business.

One of our favorite examples of transparency is Timberland's website. On their responsibility page they provide information about each of their goals for the year, and their progress to date. For example, one of their goals was 100% sustainably sourced cotton, and they posted their 2019 result was 77.5%. This honesty gives shoppers a sense of trust and actively holds brands accountable for the commitments they make.

2. Set goals and action plans

Once you have a clear understanding of where your brand is currently at, it's time to dream about where you want to be.

There are four different tiers of sustainable business, and a quick introduction to Tier 3 and Tier 4 will help you see the possibilities in store for your brand as you progress towards sustainability.

When most people think about a truly "sustainable business", they typically envision a Tier 3 business that has the following qualities:

  • They consider global systems relevant to their business

  • They define success by their profit via sustainability

  • They use sustainability (social + ecological impacts) as a core strategic lens

  • They implement advanced sustainability tools such as Sustainable Management Systems (SMS) and Cradle to Cradle Manufacturing (C2C)

  • They release yearly environmental impact reports to show their stakeholders the progress they’re making towards increased sustainability

  • They are typically certified B Corps or are working towards certification

Tier 4 businesses take things a step further by considering all global systems, aiming to reshape society so that sustainable business becomes an advantage, and taking actions far past the bounds of the business through lobbying, civic engagement, and public campaigns. A great example of a Tier 4 sustainable business is Patagonia, which has made civic engagement a central part of their business activities.

In both of these sustainable business models, sustainability is a key strategy and principle for success — meaning that the goals of the business must reach further than simple growth and profit.

What ecological and societal impacts are you hoping to make with your brand, and what steps are you going to need to take to get there? Thinking about this question and envisioning the future you hope your business will help create will provide clarity on where to start with your goals and action plans.

The next three steps are meant to be a starting point for you to begin implementing sustainability action in your business.

3. Source sustainable materials

What you use to make your products – and where you get those materials from – is crucial to your brand's overall sustainability.

Synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester take years to decompose and release harmful particles into water sources and the environment (see this post to learn more about material selections and sustainability). If your business currently uses unsustainable materials, take some time to look into sustainable alternatives that you could aim to switch to as a sustainability goal.

Sustainable alternatives include recycled materials, upcycled materials, and plant-based fibers. A good example of a brand using responsible materials is Mara Hoffman, which prides itself on using eco-conscious materials.

The sooner you can switch to ethical and sustainable materials, the better. Brands that make responsible sourcing a priority are well-positioned to answer customer questions and demonstrate their commitment to sustainability.

4. Rethink packaging

When it comes to e-commerce, one of the first sustainability concerns that comes to mind is packaging. The vast majority of products purchased online are shipped in materials that are harmful to the environment, and often contain several layers of plastics.

If you're reading this and feel a little called out, don't sweat it. Switching to sustainable packaging is easier than ever before thanks to a new wave of companies that's setting out to create sustainable packaging solutions. A Google search for "sustainable packaging" now brings up over 200 million results!

One of our favorite example of an innovative sustainable packaging company is Mushroom Packaging. They create 100% home-compostable packaging that's grown in 7 days with only two ingredients: hemp hurds and mycelium. Mushroom Packaging is certified Cradle to Cradle and can create custom molded packaging for a variety of product types. Groovy!

Although sustainable packaging might cost a bit more, your sustainably-minded customers will really appreciate not having to feel the guilt of sending non-recyclable packaging to landfill when they purchase your products, and will feel a lot more comfortable ordering from you again. Packaging is the first touchpoint for your e-commerce customers, and first impressions matter.

But what if you're not ready to invest in a packaging redesign?

The best place to start evaluating your packaging is to ask exactly what packaging is essential to deliver a great product experience to your customers. Anything that isn’t necessary to protect the product or deliver an amazing experience should be removed.

Excessive packaging is not only wasteful, it also ends up costing you more! This article has a helpful list of what other brands are doing and how it manages consumer frustration. If you can eliminate just one aspect of your packaging, your brand is actively moving towards a sustainable packaging.

Try implementing some of the ideas we’ve shared to immediately let your customers know what you stand for. Your customers will thank you for taking responsibility for your packaging and making it easier for them to shop sustainably.

5. Consider end of life

Last but not least, let's talk trash.

At some point, your customers will be done with your products and will need to dispose of them in some way. An important component of a comprehensive sustainability plan is how you ensure that your products are disposed of in a sustainable way (i.e., not in landfills or waterways).

Here at Recurate, we believe that your products' end of life should be an opportunity to re-engage with your customers and grow your broader community with branded peer-to-peer resale.

Resale is undoubtably the most sustainable way to shop, and it's also a booming industry that you don't want to miss the boat on. As a 28 billion dollar market that's growing faster than traditional retail, it provides a unique opportunity for brands to serve customers in new ways while also greatly increasing their sustainability.

If resale gets you excited, you're not alone! The 2020 Circular Fashion Pledge, which provides resources and guidance to brands committed to circularity, is quickly growing and is currently recruiting brands to join in their mission to lead the fashion industry towards sustainability.

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