Four sustainable shipping practices your business should implement

March 14, 2023

E-commerce generates a concerning amount of waste and emissions—let’s change that.

shipping boxes and a barge with shipping containers

Since its inception in the 1990s, e-commerce has been on a steady rise. The coronavirus pandemic only fueled purchasing behaviors as consumers abandoned brick-and-mortar stores for the convenience—and safety—of their living rooms. But now, e-commerce is expected to expand by $1 trillion by 2025. And now, customers expect retailers to deliver products in as little time and as cheaply as possible—table stakes in our convenience-driven society. But the rising demand for quick shipping has triggered another serious concern.

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The volume of packages shipped has disastrous effects on the environment—both from packaging waste and delivery emissions. It’s time to consider how to minimize the shipping industry’s environmental impact and create sustainable shipping best practices.

Best practices for sustainable shipping    

If you’re in e-commerce, shipping is a necessary evil, but you can optimize your shipping and offer other sustainable solutions for customers. Here are four areas to consider:  

1. Optimize last-mile delivery  

Last-mile delivery—the last leg of a package’s journey from a transportation hub to the customer’s doorstep—is a crucial part of the supply chain. You can optimize this step by choosing the right shipping partner. Select a shipping company that’s committed to the environment. For example, DHL is a frontrunner in green logistics, a set of supply chain best practices aimed at reducing the carbon footprint related to shipping and distribution.

Here’s what else to look for:    

  • Optimized routes – Proper route planning according to delivery points reduces the total time on the road. Plus, it reduces pressure on logistics and makes shipping more eco-friendly by cutting total fuel consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  
  • Zero-emissions fleets – We all know that burning fossil fuels creates GHG emissions. Logistics companies that offer electric or hybrid fleets (e.g., FedEx) for last-mile delivery considerably reduce the pollution and global warming-causing emissions caused by the increased shipping of e-commerce goods.  

Getting creative: Pop-up warehouses

An impactful way to optimize shipping and reduce your carbon footprint is to establish warehouses closer to customers or at points of high demand. Big players like Walmart and other big retailers have already realized the benefits of the warehousing model. Bringing business closer to buyers reduces delivery time and last-mile emissions.

But for those not operating on Walmart’s level, reframe your thinking about what a pop-warehouse is. Take your local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Logistically, delivering to every customer would be difficult for a local farm. But opting for centralized pick-up points cuts down delivery emissions, and makes it better and more accessible for the supplier and customer alike.

Local warehousing brings down the total cost of delivery and gives your business more flexibility in case of disruption in the supply chain. Choosing central or frequently visited locations, like a school, local library, or existing retail stores, customers can incorporate this kind of pick-up into their routines.

2. Optimize packaging  

Packaging is an essential part of any tangible product. It’s a branding opportunity and serves a crucial role in protecting products from external harm. However, packaging materials are ephemeral and usually not very environmentally friendly.  

When it comes to e-commerce packaging, the amount of waste generated is extremely concerning, especially when you think that a single product may need both product packaging and shipping materials.  

In reality, about 91% of plastic packaging waste ends up in landfills. In addition to the emissions concerns, plastic pollution also poses a critical challenge for aquatic ecosystems.  

Some tips to optimize your packaging:  

  • Evaluate current packaging practices. Could you naturally reduce the total material used by adjusting how you ship things? For example, if you’re using a box to ship a tube, it leaves a lot of empty space, and you could probably eliminate that extra packaging. It’s what Amazon calls “Frustration-Free Packaging.” Examining your packaging and shipping strategies will help you understand how to curb the amount of packaging material you use.  
  • Use eco-friendly packaging. Choose sustainable packaging options—compostable mailer bags, packaging made of pre-used paper, biodegradable packing peanuts made from plant starches—that are more sustainable and help reduce your businesses’ carbon footprint.  
  • Focus on the right packaging size. Consider your product inventory and get shipping boxes that fit accordingly. Ask your distributor if they have rightsizing equipment for shipping cartons. These machines make customized box sizes from cardboard sheets and are programmed to minimize waste—that means more sustainable packaging. Reducing the amount of packaging you use is also a marketing opportunity—you’ve likely seen a few companies tout, “Now with 10% less packaging.”  
  • Ensure proper arrangement. The arrangement of products in the box matters—it directly impacts the size of the packaging. For example, rolling instead of folding can save space for items like apparel.  

3. Consolidate orders  

Consolidating multiple orders in the same package reduces waste and results in more eco-friendly shipping. Reducing the number of boxes on a truck also means less overall transit and fewer last-mile emissions. Try giving your customers the option to wait a little longer to receive all the purchased products together. Again, Amazon offers simple incentives to customers for this, but ultimately, it helps save them money, too. In short, fewer boxes mean reduced shipping costs and hassle for everyone.    

4. Minimize returns  

Increased online sales inevitably create more returns and exchanges. Optimizing your return shipping strategy is important to make e-commerce more environmentally sustainable. Plus, fewer returns mean more happy customers.

Get there by upholding strict quality control. Quality issues and shipping the wrong products will almost always result in returns—and double shipping emissions. You can minimize these issues by ensuring every product on your e-commerce site is represented correctly through descriptions, proper size measurements, and clear images.  

The good news

Customers also want sustainable and green shipping options. They take notice when shipping practices are more environmentally sustainable. Around 66% of shoppers consider eco-friendly practices desirable when buying online.

So, in the end, optimizing your shipping and packaging are tested methods to reduce your businesses’ total carbon footprint, and they ensure a sustainable future for your business.  

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Sustain.Life Team
Sustain.Life’s teams of sustainability practitioners and experts often collaborate on articles, videos, and other content.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
The takeaway

• Increased online sales inevitably create more returns and exchanges—and emissions.

• Optimizing your shipping and packaging are tested methods to reduce your businesses’ total carbon footprint, and they ensure a sustainable future for your business.