It’s an issue I’ve felt uncomfortable with for a few years. My business is to help other businesses sell products to customers. I love helping businesses succeed but I’ve often felt uneasy about being part of the consumerist cycle. Whilst building many an online store, I've often paused to reflect; am I helping to build something positive or am I contributing to the wasteful cycle of production and consumption?

In light of the report issued by the UN 1 (the one where we have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe), as a maker of e-commerce stores, I can’t help but feel a sense of responsibility in the e-commerce ecosystem.

Enter ethical e-commerce

We all know e-commerce is big business. By 2023 online sales are forecast to rise to 735 billion US dollars 2. Just think of all the extra orders that will be placed and products shipped and delivered. The impact on the planet will be huge.

This expected increase in production, together with the need to balance the carbon books to reverse the damage we've already done (the IPCC report states carbon pollution would have to be cut by 45% by 2030), is reason enough for companies to want to act responsibly and strive for sustainability in their processes. Yet, little seems to be happening on this front.

Rather than help sustainable brands become part of the solution and enter markets currently dominated by traditional companies, we're instead seeing governments and industry put the onus on the customer. Instead of introducing new legislation or subsidies to incentivise businesses to better their own practices, governments expect the customer to make the ethical decision.

The rise of the conscious consumer

As a result of this backward approach, in no other time have we, as customers, had so much guilt attached to the choices we make. From the welfare of the animals, environment, and people involved in the production process, it's fair to say, we are the most guilt-ridden consumers to ever exist. But is this right?

I would argue not entirely. While we all need to know how our products are made, it's my view that the buck should stop with governments and businesses, in creating processes and products that in the very least do not harm animals, people or the environment, and at best contribute positively to society. Leaving it all up to the consumer is, in my humble opinion, a total cop-out.

And if the constant guilt isn't enough, customers are now living in an Attention Economy; every business is competing for a customer's attention. This makes it even harder for customers to make the right choices when it comes to buying sustainably.

Yet, in spite of all this, customers are trying to make better choices. Research has shown people care where their products come from and how they are made. More than half of the shoppers in the UK said they feel better when they buy products that are sustainably produced and 3 out of 5 individuals surveyed would purchase an environmentally conscious product 3. Customers are going so far as to use apps that rank companies based on sustainability, such as the Good On You app, to help them make better buying choices.

The case for

If saving the planet wasn't reason enough, there’s a huge opportunity for startups to dominate their industry if they get it right. Rather than see sustainability and good ethics as a cost, businesses should see this as an investment. While sprawling global brands struggle to make their internal operations efficient and change their product lines, startups can profit from day one.

Indeed, there is a huge appetite for business newcomers doing the right thing. Millennials (the 'Green Generation') and Generation Z are willing to pay extra for sustainable products. Therefore, startups can not only grow market share but can 'build loyalty among the power-spending Millennials of tomorrow, too' 4.

How it's done

There are more and more sustainable brands entering the market and offering an alternative to the mainstream but a long-standing favorite of mine is Patagonia. Patagonia is a company who embodies a new style of responsible business. Its values and sustainability is at the heart of every business decision they make. In the book, ‘Let my people go surfing’ 5, Patagonia embraces challenging the typical business model. Staying true to their roots, they are a company who has not only kept their cultural values as they grew, but whose values have become influential to the company's growth.

What you can do

  • Make the best product and make it to last
  • Offer a lifetime guarantee
  • Reduce your packaging or go 100% recyclable
  • Partner up with local suppliers
  • Offset your carbon
  • Allow customers to pick up in store
  • Allow employees to work from home
  • Offer a recycling programme
  • Use renewable energy providers
  • Educate your customers and illustrate the cost-savings to paying more for a quality product
  • Donate a portion of profits to a local cause
  • Offer a way for customers to donate at checkout
  • Be transparent and don’t greenwash - shoppers have a right to know how and where their products are being made

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  5. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard.