Sustainable consumption in e-commerce

10 Dec 2021 09:45h - 11:15h

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Online shopping and online marketplaces have gained increased importance during the COVID-19 pandemic. This panel explored the convergence of the digital and green transitions.  

Sustainable consumption requires consumers to align their shopping habits with their own values. Making the green transition attractive to consumers and to businesses is fundamental in attaining the goal of developing a more sustainable economy. E-commerce has certainly aided to lower costs and to increase convenience, but it is worth noting that these advantages are leading to over consumption. In addition, e-commerce consumes more energy than traditional commerce. Currently, its carbon footprint is two to three times that of France. Plus it involves logistics with environmental consequences and packaging waste. 

Another problem is product returns. Returns add to the carbon footprint of products, and some companies use a free return policy as an incentive to make consumers buy more. Businesses are now experimenting with last mile deliveries by walk to reduce emissions.

Also considerable green washing and confusion for consumers occurs. When consumers become aware of particular issues that conflict with sustainability claims, they start to lose trust in the marketplace. That lack of trust has negative consequences for brands and businesses that seek to provide robust, sustainable products to consumers. Along with e-commerce platforms, brands should report the carbon footprint of producing the product, similar to calorie counts on food items.

A digital marketplace has also enabled the sharing economy. Be it homes, cars, or clothes, they offer consumers access to secondhand products to minimise consumption. Brands are realising this; in fact, Poland has just seen the opening of a Decathlon that sells used products. While digital marketplaces are an opportunity to support consumers to consume more sustainably, they also have a very important role to play in the way that they filter offers available online. They have some control over the claims they are making and ensuring that consumers are the real choosers of products–and not the algorithms that lead them to it.

We need clear rules for the actors in the online market. It requires all actors to play a role: businesses, governments, policymakers, standard setting bodies, consumers and consumer organisations. 

First, we need to ensure that consumers have information that is meaningful and helps them make informed, sustainable choices. Second, policies must ensure that companies produce longer lasting products in a sustainable manner and take care of waste disposal. This should be enforced on products coming from all countries. Policymakers need to find the right balance between a regulated environment, which keeps the market competitive, and consumers. Right incentives must be created for companies to offer more sustainable products and business models to consumers.

Universities can facilitate research projects to focus on how to nudge consumers to behave in a better way. Educating students and local communities on making sustainable choices will also help conscious future generations.

All stakeholders need to come together and we need better regulations to make platforms accountable. At the same time, consumers need to put in the extra effort to study products before buying impulsively.

By Mili Semlani

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