Sustainability in retail is a major conversation when we look at how we, as a society, can reduce our carbon footprint. In fact, this is an issue that consumers are now taking note of when making their purchasing decisions.
A study by Future Commerce found that consumers increasingly care more about sustainable business practices, with 42% having browsed or purchased from physical second-hand, thrift or consignment shops, and 47% saying they actively focus on buying fewer, better things.
However, making the shift toward sustainability can seem daunting to many retailers — especially for SMBs with smaller budgets, and with the added pressure of offering free and fast shipping.
Typically, most retailers who do have a focus on sustainability tend to only focus on packaging (since you can see it). But I believe that there are other management tactics that are arguably more important to promoting sustainability holistically and can also have a positive impact on shipping speed and price.
Right now, there are three major ways for both big box retailers and SMBs to prioritize sustainability without making packaging the main focus or compromising on price and speed.
This includes leveraging 3PL partners, implementing returns methods that match the retailers’ need for getting the item back, and creating a “sustainability check card” when choosing vendor partners.
Leveraging Third-Party Logistics Partners
The use of third-party logistics (3PL) partners is not a new concept — they allow companies to scale their operations to meet the increasing demand for high-volume shipping.
However, they can actually have an unintended, sustainable byproduct. The movement toward third party fulfillment (via 3PLs) allows retailers to store inventory in locations that reduce transit time (making “fast” shipping a possibility).
A strategic 3PL partner can also take sustainability into consideration when giving advice for providing the most efficient routes, whether it be by plane, car, or ship, allowing for a reduction in-transit time, vehicle use and fuel.
Implementing Versatile Returns + Quality Assurance Models That Optimize Retailers’ Processing Needs
Fast and free shipments are now a must-have versus a want to have for consumers, especially when it comes to returns.
In fact, we conducted research on consumers’ return habits and found that 95% say a bad returns experience would make them less likely to purchase from a brand again in the future.
However, in addition to improving customer satisfaction, a speedy and cost-free shipping process can also have an unintended, sustainable byproduct.
From a sustainability standpoint, a streamlined returns shipment process allows the supply chain to be balanced with the retailers’ cycle time in getting products back into market; there are many instances when getting a product back in market quicker and reprocessing an item (from a quality control standpoint to then be sold as new) can, in fact, be more sustainable than adding a layer or two into the process.
On the flip side, if consumers are buying multiple sizes, colors and variations of a product without returning them due to shipping and cost restraints, retailers will have to go back to their suppliers and request more products to be developed, ultimately increasing their carbon footprint.
Introducing a “Sustainability Check Card” For Logistics Companies and Suppliers
As a retailer, it’s on you to not only ensure your own processes are sustainable, but to ensure the practices of your suppliers and logistics providers are as well.
A trend that could emerge (and what retailers should start looking for) will be that shipping carriers, suppliers, and every other vendor a retailer outsources to make their businesses possible will begin publishing “sustainability scorecards.”
The scorecards would answer the sustainability questions retailers have, such as granting visibility on carbon footprint statistics, packaging methods, etc.
This will enable retailers to know what each vendor’s sustainability method is and allow them to take the most sustainable foot forward.
In turn, retailers can relay this data to consumers, which could have a huge impact on the choices they make if sustainability is a purchasing priority.
As more retailers try to implement “fast and free” shipping solutions, sustainability has become less of a focus for big box and SMB retailers alike.
However, retailers don’t have to choose between the two. Rather than focusing solely on packaging, inbound and outbound vendor management tactics like leveraging 3PLs, implementing versatile returns capabilities and making strategically sustainable decisions when choosing partners can be even more impactful in the long run — allowing for greener practices without compromising the fast and free shipping consumers demand.
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