Welcome to the second article in our ongoing ethical eCommerce series – running every Tuesday throughout the rest of May and June. The focus will be on some of the main areas of online retail that are currently under scrutiny, or experiencing revolution, in terms of their ethical and eco-friendly creditials.
With climate change topping headlines on a regular basis, a huge upswing in the number of people switching to a plant-based diet and kitchens all over the country bursting at the seams with multiple colour-coded recycling bins, there’s been an undeniable trend in recent years towards a more switched-on and ethically minded consumer.
What does this rise in the conscious customer mean for eCommerce? And how can brands best align and present their values in a manner that appeals to this newly enlightened audience?
Perhaps it’s easiest to begin by framing the question in terms of what’s best avoided. Online trade inevitably means online feedback: you can be sure that if your brand is falling foul of your customers’ standards, they’ll let you know in no uncertain terms. The social backlash that brands can face when outed as transgressors in this field can be swift and merciless.
The outrage is even more fierce when a brand that has previously traded off a particularly ethical or eco friendly reputation is perceived to hypocritical; the Body Shop suffered from years of boycotting after their acquisition by L’Oreál (recently called off after purchase by Natura), and more recently trendy Method and Ecover ran into trouble regarding their new owners, SC Johnson, who openly admits to animal testing. The internet has enabled businesses and brands to flourish through online trading, but it’s also made it a whole lot easier for your customers to fact-check, communicate with each other and call out unclear or shady policies.
Beauty Pie do an excellent job of clearly stating their stance on animal testing and the vegan credentials of their products within their FAQ, with a well-worded section that addresses some of the “workarounds” many other companies try to hide behind – “We do not do animal testing, our suppliers do not do animal testing, nor do we pay people to do animal testing for us.” If you don’t want your social media team working overtime, clarity and consistency really are vital in today’s modern market. It’s no long enough to pander to something you see as a trend, you need to walk the walk, backing up your values-led branding with concrete ethical and environmental policies that prove your commitment.
Key takeaway: make your ethical stance clear, and then stick to your values.
In addition to empowering and amplifying customer feedback, online trade is renowned for opening up your audience’s ability to shop around. The ability to price check a product is a consideration that brands are all too familiar with, and very few consumers will fail to take the time to do some quick sleuthing to find a deal.
With the rise in more conscious consumerism, a trend we can safely assume we’ll see in the future is retailer choice being dictated to a certain extent by a company’s ethical stance and reputation. A great example of this is Toms, a brand synonymous with their “one for one” policy. Toms shoes are comfortable and practical, but similar footwear could reasonably expect to be found at any number of cheaper price points. People flock to Toms for their charitable association, a feelgood factor that lasts as long as the shoes do – providing a daily reminder that you’ve made an altruistic fashion decision whenever you slip them on. Interestingly, Toms online store is structured in a way that gives equal weighting to shopping and their charitable work, with all info nested under two dropdown menus: “Shop” and “How We Give.”
Similarly, People Tree are a fashion label that can justify a higher price point than many of their competitors without worrying about scaring away custom. Prices are justified with a clear stance on sustainable, Fair Trade fashion. A large section of their site is dedicated to telling the story of their close ties with ethical consumer choices. With the backlash against fast fashion, People Tree go a long way to providing reassurance and credibility to help win and convert their dedicated ethical customer base.
Key takeaway: online comparisons of the future won’t just be about pricing.
A notable shopping trend in recent times has been to #shoplocal. This is obviously slightly counter to the stance of eCommerce, which has always counted the ability to access products and services from around the globe as one of its key selling points. Another key benefit that has commonly been pushed by the industry are faster and faster shipping times – with delivery timing and cost often proving huge contributing factors relating to the decision to purchase. The method and speed of delivery can have a large impact on carbon emissions, with slower boat-based transport better than speedy planes, and slower land deliveries providing the opportunity to consolidate packages for maximum efficiency.
It’ll be very interesting to see how public perception around delivery speed shifts in years to come. Shoppers are increasingly conscious of the environmental impact that their consumer choices are having – but will they be willing to sacrifice convenience and speed, for a reduced emissions footprint? Anything’s possible; a few years ago, the thought of carting around a stainless steel straw or reusable coffee cup would have been thought of as bit “over the top” by many, but today it’s the norm for a rapidly growing section of society.
In terms of prepping for the future, partnering with delivery agents who have well-developed logistics practises that maximise efficiency and minimise emissions may well prove to be a smart move. UPS famously make great use of machine learning to ensure they’re shaving off delivery miles wherever possible. In addition, making a big noise about choosing to use native suppliers to produce products with the lowest possible carbon footprint, whilst championing local manufacturing will only help to win the ethical consumers of tomorrow.
Key takeaway: be prepared for the demand for eco-conscious production and delivery options.
Some of the key value propositions of eCommerce – fast delivery, international products to your door, easy consumer feedback – which brands and retailers have always seen as desirable, saleable attributes, may well prove increasingly problematic as the rise of a more conscious, eco-friendly customer continues.
Now is the time to be planting your flag on issues such as brand values, supplier choices and sustainable delivery options, and to consider incorporating storytelling into your branding, which companies such as Sudara, who experienced 4x growth in their first year on moving to Shopify Plus, have done to great effect. The rise of a switched on, eco-conscious customer base is nothing to be feared, but instead provides a new opportunity to differentiate and stand out from competitors for those willing to get ahead of the game.
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