March 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

The greening of the Internet

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“It’s not just about aggregating a few products, but about how we as a company work to become more green,” says Monica Luechtefeld, executive vice president of e-commerce, citing the company’s commitments to reducing greenhouse gases and energy use in its buildings and truck fleet.

She estimates that only about half of Office Depot’s customers go out of their way to buy green, though many of those are large corporate or government accounts that insist on having green options available to their employees. Perhaps 15% have a corporate or legislative requirement to buy green whenever possible.

Office Depot also offers “lighter green” and “just green” options for customers who don’t want to pay a large green premium, and identifies choices that are both less expensive and environmentally friendly.

Online retailers can bring a depth of product selection that bricks-and-mortar retailers simply don’t have the shelf space for, and that’s a major advantage in green marketing.

Eco-politan, which started in 2008, is on track to break into six figures in sales this year. The company grew out of Robin Morris’s four months of bed rest during her first pregnancy, which she spent combing the web for environmentally responsible baby products.

The niche advantage

The store has 3,000 SKUs, all personally vetted by Morris and her staff, and not available through mass retailers. “Going green really helps my business,” she says.

She points out that even Denver, a city of 2 million in one of the most green-aware parts of the country, hasn’t had a one-stop specialty store for all green needs. She recently opened her first physical location to keep enthusiastic Denverites from stopping by her house to check out the merchandise.

Green retailing has the built-in irony of trying to appeal to a market whose motto is “reduce, reuse, recycle.” “We don’t want to promote greener overconsumption,” says Mathew Gerson, founder of eConscious World Market, Boulder, Colo., which sells thousands of eco-aware products from clothing and jewelry to household cleaning products, and donates 10% of each sale to a not-for-profit organization that the customer chooses from an approved list. “The greenest thing you can do is not buy. It’s not good for business, but it’s true.”

Elizabeth Gardner is a Riverside, Ill.-based freelance business writer.

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