Digital Environmental Footprint: Uncovering The Hidden Carbon Cost of Your Ecommerce Store

Your price points may be carefully calculated – but is your ecommerce store literally costing the earth?

Skipped the environmental footprint of a bricks and mortar store? Using recycled materials and paper tape to pack your orders? Offsetting your shipping? Feeling a bit smug? We’re here to blow your mind…

Your website or e-commerce store might not be as green as you thought. Increasingly, people are waking up to the impact of our digital environmental footprints, and the negative impact this can have on our planet.

We tend to see our online presence as such an intangible, non-physical thing — how could it have a negative impact on the planet? 

But every time we view a website, download an image, watch a funny cat video or stream a feed, we’re triggering a twofold drain on natural resources. There’s energy required to both run our devices, and to serve the content that we consume on them.

However good our intentions, and however sustainable our brand, e-commerce is not exempt from this issue. It’s time our industry woke up and took stock of the contribution we’re making to climate change via our digital environmental footprints.

The hidden environmental cost of ecommerce

Our virtual stores and sites are powered by very real, physical data centres. And they’re consuming a massive amount of power...

While the energy efficiency of these centres has increased over the past two decades, it’s predicted advancements will start flatlining as the financial impact of these improvements tails off.

It’s been estimated that we could see data centers account for usage of 3-13% of global electricity by 2030. For comparison, the aviation industry is currently responsible for 2% of annual human-generated CO2.

If you’ve never considered the digital footprint of your ecommerce store or website, make today the day that changes. Lots of online resources are available. We like websitecarbon.com and https://digitalbeacon.co/ which in addition to estimating your emissions, will give you an idea of where your website stands in relation to others.

It provides some eye-watering statistical comparisons (like how many trees would be needed to absorb the carbon released by your website annually). Thankfully, it will also provide some top tips for taking quick action to start reducing your footprint right away.

Beyond your store: the environmental impact of digital marketing

The digital carbon footprint of your store goes beyond the site itself — you’ll also need to take your approach to digital marketing into account.

We’ve probably all rolled our eyes at the “please think twice before printing this email, save the trees!” lines in email signatures (really, when was the last time anyone printed out and filed an email thread?). But the simple act of receiving, viewing and sending email has a very real carbon cost — and marketing in this way inevitably adds to the carbon footprint of your brand.

When it comes to email’s impact on emissions, it really is a case of death by a thousand cuts. A single email is thought to produce 0.000001 tonnes of CO2. This doesn’t seem like much until you consider the fact that over 64 million unnecessary emails are sent by Brits alone every single day.

Each UK adult sending just one less one-liner ‘thank you’ response email a day, would save over 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year — the same as 81,152 flights to Madrid or taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road.

We all know that email campaigns are an effective way of driving sales, and no one is suggesting that we need to turn our backs on this essential marketing channel. But increasing our awareness of the impact each blast represents should make us think twice, and at least consider looking into offsetting the impact.

Steps you can take to imrpove

We conducted a live Q&A with Hey Low, a creative studio helping ethical brands create beautiful online experiences that are designed with low carbon impact in mind. They also created the website you're on right now.

They had some brilliant, practical tips for brands to consider. Join our MindfulCommerce Community and find the full Q&A session inside.

Here are some key considerations when looking for ways to reduce your brand’s digital carbon footprint:

  • Hosting. Your data centre must run on renewable energy. Demand transparency when it comes to this and settle for nothing less.
  • Optimise! Good for your page speed, good for the planet. This relates to images (compress, upload at correct scale) and fonts (again, compress and stick to modern formats.) 
  • Aim for efficiency in your UX. Design user journeys that bring your customers swiftly and safely through the purchase process — no excess energy needs to be expended and everyone wins.
  • Embrace digital minimalism. Carefully consider your use of large images, and especially video files. What’s really needed to achieve the effect or response that you’re looking for? 
  • Keep it clean. Encourage your developers to embrace the challenge of simple, efficient code in all areas of your site — weed out duplications and unnecessary plugins.

What's Shopify doing to help its merchants to reduce their digital footprint?

Shopify CEO, Tobi Lutke, has long been a champion of carbon neutrality.

As a result, Shopify has taken some significant steps toward reduced environmental impact in recent years.

While many of these have been focused on the more immediate impacts of ecommerce (for example, offsetting shipping emissions via the Shop app), they’ve also taken a big step forward in terms of lightening the digital environmental footprint of the merchants they host, by switching to Google Cloud for their infrastructure collaboration. Google Cloud runs on 100% renewable energy meaning that all associated energy consumption from sites and stores is offset with clean energy.

Shopify makes a point of the fact that they’re in this game for the long haul, and part of Tobi’s vision has always been to build a “hundred year company” – surprisingly few companies make it into this illustrious triple digits club. 

To make our 100-year vision come true, we need to not only make commerce better, but take better care of our planet.” — Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke (Shopify Sustainability Report 2019).

Working towards a greener future for online retail

As the rise of conscious consumerism continues to gather pace, an online brand’s eco credentials will become an increasingly valuable asset. A brand with a saintly digital environmental footprint can and should lean on this for valuable kudos within their (carefully considered, eco friendly!) marketing.

Ultimately, when brands take action to reduce their digital carbon footprint, everyone wins. Values-led businesses are more closely aligned with their mission and enjoy increased customer loyalty, shoppers experience faster, sleeker online experiences, and most importantly, our planet can breathe a small sign of relief, with every conversion. 

💚 We help Shopify businesses to develop digital marketing strategies that are environmentally friendly, following our zero waste approach. Take a look at our services here if you're a Shopify merchant and here if you're a Shopify app team.