GUEST COMMENT: Three ways online retailers can be more sustainable

Image: Adobe Stock

Image: Adobe Stock

Gav Winter, CEO of next generation website monitoring company RapidSpike

Today, the average website costs the planet six grams of CO2 per page view – and per website that’s the equivalent of driving a car 12,000 miles. There’s no question that while the internet has proved to be a lifeline for many brands – particularly throughout the past two years – it’s also accountable for an enormous amount of power consumption.

Consumers are taking more notice of the environmentally friendly initiatives that their favourite retail and ecommerce organisations are rolling out, as well. For example, over 1,000 shoppers were recently surveyed by customer experience consultancy CPM, and 83% of respondents said they worried that online shopping was ‘unsustainable’.

There’s a huge message coming out of Government too with initiatives – such as the ‘Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener’ project – contributing towards ambitious targets of decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy by 2050. 

So, more organisations should be aware of the steps they can take to roll-out green schemes that help to protect the planet.

For the eco-conscious retailers either new to how they can be more environmentally conscious or for those who are keen to keep their carbon-neutral quest on the right track, a great place to start is with their website.

The online brands that are stepping up

When the internet never sleeps, websites ultimately have a significant impact on sustainability. And the more complex they are, the worse they can be for the environment.

For many ecommerce brands, they rely on their online presence to enhance their overall customer experience – a factor which has proved to be critical while maintaining ‘business as usual’ throughout the pandemic as physical stores were forced to shut down temporarily.

However, the current state of play makes for interesting reading.

A search on Websitecarbon.com shows that many retailers could be doing a little better when it comes to making their websites greener. For example, Amazon’s UK site currently emits 0.56g of CO2 every time someone visits the page. During traffic peaks – for example November and December when almost 442 and 474 million visits were made last year alone, likely due to Black Friday and Cyber Monday – that’s a lot of energy sapped from the environment.

Meanwhile Boohoo.com is considered ‘79% dirtier’ than many other sites that have been tested by Websitecarbon.com, and global retailer eBay could emit 9% less CO2 simply if it used a greener host.

However, in comparison, music ecommerce brand GuitarGuitar – which generates £45 million per annum and sells over 50,000 instruments in the process – is 79% cleaner than most sites tested. The same can be said for Sainsbury’s, whose site is 64% less dirty. 

Between them, both brands omit just 0.81g of CO2, and they’re regularly in the top five ecommerce brands in the Web Vital Index’s highest performing UK websites which uses metrics – including Google’s Core Web Vitals – to analyse performance, accessibility, page structure and reliability. 

So, what are the ‘secrets’ to their sustainability? The truth is small changes can make a big difference… and they don’t have to cost the earth. Here are three ways in which online retailers can make their websites more environmentally friendly…

  1. Make sure page sizes and processing times are reduced

Pixels and imagery are both a crucial part of web design, but they need power. To put it into context, if a retailer was to upload an image that was 1MB too big, while that might be fine to the naked eye, the problem occurs when it’s downloaded one million times – resulting in one million megabytes of server, network, and user device time. And let’s not forget electricity and transport time.

Brands can optimise images to reduce sizes – all without compromising on quality. That alone can speed up page load time and, in turn, cause less energy consumption.

  1. It’s all about marginal gains

The way to go greener isn’t to scrap a website and start again, although some organisations may take this approach.

Instead, a recommendation here is to explore where the ‘quick wins’ are. Retailers can turn off auto-playing videos, reduce custom fonts, have less or optimised JavaScript, access a green web host, and switch from on-premise and legacy technology to cloud-native solutions. These changes alone can dramatically reduce CO2 emissions.

From a commercial perspective too, even a 0.1% speed improvement can represent millions of extra revenue for brands.

  1. Explore the powers of synthetic monitoring

Often referred to as the ‘online mystery shopper’, retailers can tap into synthetic monitoring to find, fix, and prevent online issues. Not only will this make their website more sustainable, but they’ll greatly improve the customer experience too.

Brands might’ve seen this form of testing also being called ‘application observability’. However, rather than get bogged down in the jargon, it’s better to think of it as being a powerful, automated e-store monitor that’s able to provide teams with detail on website availability, performance, and security risks – all of which could negatively impact revenue or reputation if the problem isn’t resolved quickly.

For retailers who are exploring ways in which to make their online presence more sustainable, a good rule of thumb is to picture any device as being millions of small power guzzlers. Every piece of technology consumes energy so – coming back to the point about marginal gains – what small changes can make a big difference for online retailers?

Yes, speed will be a factor here, but it’s important to delve a little deeper and see what other, often minor, alterations can be made to improve performance, health, reliability, and security – all of which will support the quest to becoming a net zero nation by 2025.

In a world that’s swiftly becoming more accessible to online shoppers, if ecommerce brands want to commit to caring for their planet, it all comes back to their website. And when customers are watching, the last thing brands should be doing is using misleading marketing or ‘greenwashing’ tactics. Today, it’s about actions and follow-through, not sustainability ‘spin’.

Author:

Gav Winter, CEO of next generation website monitoring company RapidSpike

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