Can e-commerce help save the planet?

If you’ve recently logged into Google Flights, you may have noticed a small change in the page layout. In addition to the usual sortable categories, such as price, duration and departure time, there is a new field: CO2 emissions.

Launched in October 2021, the column gives potential travelers an estimate of how much carbon dioxide they will be responsible for emitting.

“When choosing between flights of similar cost or schedule, you can also factor carbon emissions into your decision,” wrote Google’s vice president of travel products, Richard Holden.

Google is part of a wave of digital companies, including Amazon and Ant Financial, encouraging consumers to make more sustainable choices by offering eco-friendly filtering options, highlighting the environmental impact of products and pulling from the engagement strategies used in video games.

Experts say these digital nudges can help increase awareness of environmental threats and adoption of solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Our consumer practices are putting enormous pressure on the planet, driving climate change, fueling pollution and pushing species towards extinction,” says David Jensen, Digital Transformation Coordinator at the United Nations Environment Program ( UNEP).

“We need to make better decisions about the things we buy and the trips we take,” he added. “These green digital nudges help consumers make better decisions and collectively push businesses to adopt sustainable practices through consumer pressure.”

Global reach

At least 1.5 billion people consume products and services through e-commerce platforms, and global e-commerce sales reached US$26.7 trillion in 2019, according to a recent report by the United Nations Conference on trade and development (UNCTAD).

Meanwhile, 4.5 billion people are on social media and 2.5 billion play online games. These numbers mean that digital platforms could influence ecological behaviors on a planetary scale, says Jensen.

One example is UNEP-led Playing for the Planet Alliance, which places green activations in games. UNEP’s Little Book of Green Nudges has also led over 130 universities to pilot 40 different nudges to change behavior.

A 2020 study by Globescan involving several of the world’s largest retailers found that seven out of 10 consumers want to become more sustainable. However, only three out of 10 were able to change their lifestyle.

E-commerce vendors can help bridge this gap.

“The algorithms and filters that underpin e-commerce platforms need to start pushing sustainable, net-zero products and services by default,” Jensen said. “Sustainable consumption should be at the heart of the shopping experience, enabling people to make choices that align with their values.”

Integrating sustainability into technology

Many groups are trying to take advantage of this opportunity to make the world a more sustainable place.

The Green Digital Finance Alliance (GDFA), launched by Ant Group and UNEP, aims to improve financing for sustainable development through digital platforms and fintech applications. She launched the Every Action Counts Coalition, a global network of digital, financial, retail investment, e-commerce and consumer goods companies. The coalition aims to help 1 billion people make greener choices and take action for the planet by 2025 through online tools and platforms.

We will bring together like-minded members to experiment with innovative new business models that will empower everyone to become a green digital champion,” said Marianne Haahr, Executive Director of GDFA.

In one example, GDFA member Mastercard, in conjunction with fintech company Doconomy, is providing shoppers with a personalized carbon footprint tracker to inform their spending decisions.

In the UK, Mastercard partners with HELPFUL to offer incentives to purchase products from a list of over 150 sustainable brands.

Mobile apps like Ant Forest, by Ant Group, also use a combination of incentives and digital engagement models to inspire 600 million people to make sustainable choices. Users are rewarded for their low-carbon decisions with green energy points that they can use to plant real trees. So far, the Ant Forest app has planted 122 million trees, reducing carbon emissions by more than 6 million tonnes.

Three e-commerce titans also aim to support greener lifestyles. Amazon has adopted the Climate Pledge Friendly initiative to help at least 100 million people find climate-friendly products that carry at least one of 32 different environmental certifications.

SAP’s Ariba platform is the largest B2B digital network on the planet. It has also embraced the idea of ​​”targeted procurement”, providing a detailed overview of companies’ supply chains so that potential partners can assess the social, economic and environmental impact of transactions.

“Digital transformation is an opportunity to rethink how our business models can contribute to sustainability and how we can achieve full environmental transparency and accountability across our entire value chain,” said Daniel Schmid , director of sustainability at SAP.

According to UNEP’s Jensen, a crucial next step would be for mobile phone operating systems to adopt standards that would allow apps to share environmental and carbon footprint information.

“This would allow users to seamlessly calculate their footprints across apps to develop insights and change behaviors,” Jensen said. “Everyone needs access to an individual ‘environmental dashboard’ to truly understand their impact and options for living more sustainably.”

Need for common standards

As platforms begin to encode sustainability into their algorithms and product recommendations, common standards are needed to ensure reliability and public trust, experts say.

Indeed, many online retailers claim to do more for the environment than they actually do. An analysis carried out in January by the European Commission and European national consumer protection authorities found that in 42% of cases, durability claims were exaggerated or false.

To help change this, UNEP serves as the secretariat of the One Planet Network, a global community of practitioners, policy makers and experts promoting sustainable consumption and production.

In November, the One Planet Network released guidance documents for e-commerce platforms that outline how to better inform consumers and enable more sustainable consumption, based on 10 principles from UNEP and the International Trade Center .

The European Union is also pioneering core standards for digital sustainability through digital product passports that contain relevant information on a product’s origin, composition, environmental and carbon performance.

“Digital product passports will be an essential tool to strengthen consumer protection and increase the level of trust and rigor around environmental performance claims,” says Jensen. “They are the next frontier on the path to planetary sustainability in the digital age.”

UNEP

About Alexander Estrada

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