Interview: Ellen de Lange Project Manager Sustainability at Thuiswinkel.org.

July 23, 2018

E-commerce is no longer the new kid on the block. Like any mature industry, it is time for e-commerce to start thinking about corporate responsibility and our impact on the environment.

Thuiswinkel.org, the trademark and organization representing online retail in The Netherlands, is here to help. In January of this year Thuiswinkel, together with players in the industry, launched Bewust Bezorgd (‘Consciously Delivered); a tool to calculate the impact of different delivery options. And that is just the start. Together with online retailers, carriers and science institutions Thuiswinkel.org will continue on their journey towards more sustainable e-commerce. To tell us more about this, we talked to Ellen de Lange, Project Manager Sustainability at Thuiswinkel.

Who took the initiative on Bewust Bezorgd?

Thuiswinkel.org launched the initiative in January. Our idea: let’s bring online retailers and carriers together to see how we can tackle the issue of greener delivery. This was needed because all these different carriers use their own ways of measuring CO2 emissions. Also, online retailers all use a different mix of carriers. If we wanted to make a real impact, a standardized approach was really the only way.

Luckily, many companies shared this vision. This meant we could create a unique setting in which some direct competitors gathered around the table. Together we started developing a model to measure the environmental impact across the entire logistics chain, from first mile to last mile.

This resulted in a model with 15 different input variables, which together determine the impact of any delivery. These variables include distance, weight or the amount of ‘air’ in the parcel.

To help create awareness for the model we launched a website on which consumers can see the CO2 impact of different online orders, depending on their desired delivery option. In the second half of 2018 the model will be made available via an API, allowing retailers or carriers to calculate the impact of each delivery in real-time.

What can we expect from Thuiswinkel.org in the upcoming 12 months?

Besides launching the API we want to increase awareness for greener logistics by publishing a best practices guide on packaging. This helps retailers make sustainable choices in their packaging with regard to materials, reducing air and re-use of packaging.

Secondly, we are working hard on setting new goals on sustainable packaging – in close collaboration with the Dutch government. A few years ago we set our first ambitions on reducing the amount of air packaging and materials. The time has come to update these ambitions and take further steps.

The Dutch are pioneers in recycling of packaging materials All the way in China they are now asking us to share our findings!

Research suggests that ‘pure online shoppers’ already have the least impact on the environment. Less than any other shopper type. What’s your take on this – true or not?

It is almost impossible to compare e-commerce to ‘normal’ shopping. What is normal shopping these days? There are so many factors that come into play in today’s shopping behavior. For this reason I cannot directly claim that ‘e-commerce is greener’. But certainly it is not worse for the environment. Sadly this does not entirely match consumers’ current perception, or the things you read in newspapers. Did you know for example, that only 3% of delivery vehicles in a city are connected to e-commerce?

Why do we still need to put greener e-commerce delivery on the map?

Naturally, this percentage will grow as our industry grows. This means we have to take responsibility now, to ensure we will stay green in the future. Sustainability is the new norm in business, and we are to adhere to this norm if we want to continue growing. Luckily the promise of strong volume growth makes it easy for e-commerce delivery companies to change. Especially when you compare them to more traditional areas in logistics.

Who do you think (should) play a larger role in making e-commerce greener? Is it mainly the responsibility of the delivery companies or the retailers selling online?

The responsibility is not on one party. We need to do this together. A promising example of this is the standardization of parcel sizes, so it is easier for carriers to efficiently fill their vans and containers.

Next on the horizon is delivery drivers taking back certain items upon delivery, such as old electronics or apparel. This paves the way for re-usable packaging that can help replace the cardboard packaging our industry produces.

If we look at the future, e-commerce can play a significant role in a circular economy. We haven’t found ‘the holy grail’ in e-commerce logistics yet, but it is encouraging that all parties are open to experimenting.

What role do, and should, governments play? Is strict regulation of polluters the answer, or should we subsidize those that show a good example?

First of all governments should set very clear and concise guidelines. What vehicles do, or don’t, we allow in urban zero-emission zones? Today these guidelines are still too varied between cities, or even within cities such as Amsterdam. Also they are subject to change. This needs to change, because carriers invest serious money in their fleet. They deserve clarity.

Personally I do not believe that subsidizing green efforts will be the most effective in the long term. Instead we should consider taxing CO2 emissions, so we actively discourage polluting practices.

What (consumer) behavior needs to change to make e-commerce greener? Less fast delivery? An end to free delivery?

To make delivery greener we need less unnecessary movement of parcels. How can we do this? Less missed deliveries, and less avoidable returns. To some regard, consumers can help here. Think to yourself: do you really need that item today or tomorrow? What are the effects of ordering three sizes, knowing I will return two?

But in the end it is more the retailers that need to adapt and facilitate.

By offering more delivery options such as evening delivery we can highly improve the hit-rate of delivery attempts. Many returns can be avoided by improving product and fit descriptions or better photography. And finally, when a part of a larger order is not on stock, customers should be given the option to wait and bundle the total shipment.

When it comes to shipping fees, I don’t think we need to stop free delivery. But I do think that consumers should be made aware of what happens if they press that buy button. That button starts a whole process behind the screens, which naturally costs money – especially when time is tight.

How could online retailers communicate the impact of different delivery options to their consumer?

Besides the improvements I mentioned before, such as better product descriptions, retailers could consider displaying the CO2 impact of certain delivery options in the check-out. Or actively promote the greenest option. Bewust Bezorgd is backed by the top 3 largest online retailers in The Netherlands, which really shows how seriously they take this issue.

Finally – what is your favorite example of an online retailer working towards a greener planet?

As an organization we promote our entire industry, so I cannot pinpoint one example. But across the board I see all leading Dutch online retailers working hard on this. Wehkamp has a warehouse covered in solar panels. Bol.com is working very hard on improved product information, and sharing these efforts with other online players. Coolblue is about to introduce their ‘green choice’ label for products. All key players now have packaging machines that reduce shipping unnecessary air. Our new challenge is now to encourage the players who sit just below this very top level of e-commerce to adopt the same efforts.

Want to learn more about sustainable initiatives in e-commerce?

This month at Paazl we have been talking about sustainability and how e-commerce delivery can be more environmentally efficient. Save your seat for our webinar, we will be joined by Stuart to discuss how to make your webshop greener. Alternatively download our whitepaper for a comprehensive overview of e-commerce and the environment.

New Call-to-action

More inspiration.