Sustainability in Ecommerce: Walking the talk

Nine out of ten customers are ready to switch to sustainable/organic products if they are provided with affordable and easily accessible options.

This is not just another of the numerous data points available to e-commerce analysts, but a clear indicator of the ‘attitude shift’ that consumers are displaying in the recent years. There is a lot more awareness and expression of desire to go for green products among online shoppers. Ayurvedic and herbal products, vegan cosmetics, organic fruits and vegetables, plastic-free packaging leading to ‘No Packaging’ and other such considerations are dominating the trend.

Today, there are several D2C start-ups promising sustainable alternatives, and it is time for e-commerce market players to walk the talk on sustainability. For the purpose of consideration, let’s take a look at the way e-commerce platforms can sustainably retail groceries, especially fruits and vegetables.

As an online grocery platform, it is crucial to reimagine the entire value chain starting from farming practices to transportation to storage to packaging, the tech deployed, energy and natural resources consumed, and even last-mile delivery logistics. By reducing the carbon footprint and usage of artificial inputs, we can significantly eliminate risks to human health, avoid pollution of natural resources and reduce the overall greenhouse gas emissions. It is possible to integrate sustainability in every aspect of the supply chain, starting from agricultural production onwards.

The high price of Organic products is hampering their demand and thus impacting their sustainability potential. Despite the rise of organic farming and the increase in demand for organic products, they usually remain too costly to fit into the common man’s household budget. The Organic movement has to operate at scale to make an impact. Large platforms require thousands of tons of fruits, vegetables, and food grains every year. It is possible to establish direct tie-ups with farmers, and educate as well as empower them to undertake organic farming without heavily increasing their input costs. Community organic farming wherein a larger number of farmers are educated and trained can be promoted along with peer-to-peer monitoring for certification (PGS) and economies of scale are leveraged to further reduce the costs. This would make sustainable farm produce available to customers at prices which are only nominally higher than the regular products.

At the next stage of the process, it is the packaging that has to be paid attention to. While most leading e-commerce platforms in India have reduced single-use plastics in packaging, there is still a humongous volume of waste generated by cardboard boxes, paper bags, and other packaging materials such as tapes, etc. To address this challenge, there is a need to eliminate packaging, maybe starting with fruit and vegetables. Most fruits and vegetables come with natural coverage in the form of outer layers which are peeled off before consumption. Thus, there is essentially no need to add multiple layers of plastic or other such materials which are harmful to the environment. Moreover, as the perishables are utilized within a narrow time window, the additional packaging is practically a waste. We are reminded of the sustainable living of our forefathers, who happily used reusable cloth bags for shopping for fruits and vegetables. Should we not do the same as a convenient method of delivering the farm produce to the customer’s doorstep? It shall also keep the produce fresher and economical.

Even when we talk about operations, there is a significant potential to use renewable energy in warehousing and refrigeration processes that would reduce the carbon footprint. India is a blessed land when it comes to natural resources especially the potential to generate solar and wind power. E-commerce platforms that deliver farm produce need to maintain large-scale refrigerated facilities for storage and transit, clean energy and water consumption becomes a key factor in their sustainability metrics. By using solar energy to power warehouses and refrigeration units alongside deployment of advanced energy-efficient equipment, e-commerce operators can significantly cut down their carbon footprint. Other steps include solar energy to power warehouses, deployment of biomass-powered cooling systems, and rainwater harvesting systems to save water.

Alongside production, packaging, and warehousing, one of the most impactful areas of sustainable change has to be the delivery logistics. Electric vehicles have emerged as the panacea for solving the challenge of vehicular emissions. Major e-commerce platforms rely on tens of thousands of vehicles of different types to transport their goods across the country and for last-mile logistics. The need of the hour is to build sustainable future delivery models around EVs.

At the end of the day, there is a need to eliminate the notion that sustainability and business growth can’t go hand-in-hand. Sustainability initiatives enhance the bottom line in the longer run. It is time that the e-commerce community globally makes the transition and builds a greener and healthier consumer-centric ecosystem that is profitable and sustainable for all stakeholders!



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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