Sustainability Spotlight: Making Shipping Greener While Meeting Consumer Delivery Demands

This column marks the first installment of the new monthly column at FN, “Sustainability Spotlight.” As one of the biggest global contributors to waste and pollution, the fashion industry has been exploring how it can become more sustainable and this column will dig deeper into those opportunity areas. From choosing the right textile to minimizing the impact of operations, “Sustainability Spotlight” will seek to discuss the latest developments in how footwear can reduce its environmental impact. 

When consumers hear the words “sustainable fashion,” there is an expectation that this phrase refers to the product itself: namely the materials and manufacturing processes that were used to create the item. And it is true that these decisions have the potential to reduce a brand’s environmental footprint. But all products, once made, must be transported to their final home and it’s this journey that can undermine other efforts to be sustainable.

Whether shipping footwear to a retail partner or directly to a consumer, brands risk producing substantial amounts of pollution through their fulfillment process. The expansion of global commerce has enabled companies to reach new markets and grow their customer base, but this requires the transport of goods to more distant locales. Even brands with a domestic-only audience may be manufacturing goods overseas, requiring an international shipment before a pair can be sold locally.

And then there’s the e-commerce boom, which has helped many retailers make up the revenue they lost due to store closures through much of 2020. Understandably, these businesses don’t want to reduce their e-commerce sale volume – and they shouldn’t have to. But experts recommend that merchants explore how to offset the carbon produced by this online fulfillment.

“The e-commerce industry is taking steps in the right direction when it comes to sustainability, but change can’t come fast enough,” said James Chin Moody, CEO of carbon-neutral shipping platform Sendle. “Transportation activities are responsible for roughly 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions today, and the World Economic Forum estimates there could be 36% more e-commerce delivery vehicles driving around our cities by the end of the decade, resulting in more carbon emissions pumped into the environment than ever.”

The most obvious target area for eco-conscious innovation is packaging. In order to protect an item on its journey from warehouse to store, or warehouse to front door, brands have commonly deployed excessive use of packaging materials that add to the overall waste produced from a single purchase. This is not only a waste of materials, but can also result in less efficient shipping; containers may not be packed to capacity if individual boxes are oversized.

One approach is to utilize recyclable or biodegradable materials so that consumers can repurpose the packaging once they’ve opened their item. Alternatively, brands can use already-recycled textiles from their own supply chains, thus minimizing their impact at the source. Sendle has also observed an increase in the use of compostable mailers by their customers.

Once a brand has streamlined its packaging, it can turn its attention to the method of fulfillment that it is using. Today’s consumer has an expectation for fast delivery, but these shipping services can be costly both for the retailer and the environment; premium shipping solutions like air transport have a much higher carbon footprint than local ground delivery. Therefore, brands should reevaluate the efficiency of their last-mile delivery.

L and E scrubbed packaging for footwear
Packaging is an obvious focus area for brands looking to reduce the environmental impact of their fulfillment.

“Can a retailer group together products to the same customer or customers in the same zip code or region?” asked Krish Iyer, head of industry relations and strategic partnerships at shipping platform ShipStation. “This will allow for not only better overall sortation, thus reducing the potential miles traveled for a package, but also reduce overall reliance on packaging.”

Strategic inventory planning is critical in order to streamline fulfilment – and make it more eco-friendly. By storing product nearer the end-consumer, merchants can reduce the distance of the final shipping journey and consolidate multiple local shipments into one, thus reducing the carbon footprint. This might require partnering with a 3PL that can assist with inventory management, but before making this decision, brands should evaluate which services truly align with their sustainability goals.

“Brands should be asking their fulfillment providers not only about packaging, but also the partner’s overall commitment to sustainability efforts,” said Iyer. “Brands must ask whether they are using carriers with a commitment to reducing carbon footprint. FedEx, for example, recently announced its goal to become carbon-neutral by 2040.”

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