Is it possible to stimulate the online consumer to choose sustainable delivery and return options?

The e-commerce sector aims to reduce CO₂ emissions by 2025 significantly and is working hard to achieve delivery with as few CO₂ emissions as possible. One way to contribute to lower CO₂ emissions from e-commerce is for web shops to encourage their customers to choose a sustainable delivery option.

Involving consumers

Small-scale experimental research into effective behavioral interventions to achieve this was already conducted in the Netherlands in 2021. The earlier insights were tested in practice in a study commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. This was done by doing eleven interventions in a live setting at four web shops (Blokker, Hunkemöller, Lobbes, and Prénatal) among more than 35,000 customers.

This follow-up study aimed to gain insight into which of the deployed behavioral interventions work best to encourage webshop customers to choose the delivery option identified as the most sustainable. In the research design, on the websites of Hunkemöller, Lobbes, and Prénatal, “pick up at a collection point” was identified as the most sustainable delivery option. For Blokker, it is “pick up at a Blokker store,” because Blokker does not offer the option of having an order delivered to a pickup point.


Based on the 2021 study and literature review, the following behavioral influence techniques were selected for the interventions deployed at the four participating webshops:

  1. Associations through three logos. Adding elements or symbols that customers associate with sustainability can (unconsciously) encourage them to make sustainable choices about deliveries and returns.
  2. Informing about which delivery option is the most sustainable. Provide consumers with relevant information (in this case, about the sustainable delivery option) to help them make a conscious, sustainable choice.
  3. Default option: ticking the most sustainable delivery option by default. Setting a (desired) default facilitates the choice process while maintaining the freedom of choice to customize the option as desired.
  4. Social proof: indicate that the most sustainable option is (the) most often(s) chosen by other customers. With this, you communicate the social norm, which activates to show the same (desired) behavior.

A combination of behavioral interventions leads to more than twice as many sustainable delivery choices in practice. In particular, ticking the most sustainable delivery option by default in combination with a logo or text (inform or social proof force) results in more sustainable delivery choices.

Only using the social proof intervention “(most) often chosen” was found to be ineffective. Only using a logo, a behavioral intervention commonly used in online shops in practice, was effective in only two of the 16 cases.

What is sustainability?

Unfortunately, the study does not establish how a web shop can determine whether a delivery (or return) is truly sustainable from multiple “broad welfare” criteria (DSGs). For CO2 emissions (zero-emission), there is even the question of whether parcel pickup is a sustainable option and for which stakeholders. Criteria such as traffic safety, energy consumption, fewer and faster returns, tax avoidance by cross-border webshops, fair working conditions of delivery drivers, the impact of the disappearance of stores, and delivery inequity are also relevant considerations. This is certainly a reason for follow-up research throughout the online supply chain.

Decisions about the customer journey

The report concludes that stimulating a sustainable delivery option with interventions on the check-out page rarely has adverse side effects on the commercial operations of webshops.

It is interesting how web shops can use this knowledge for strategic, tactical, and operational marketing decisions when organizing the customer journey. How can you gain competitive power by profiling sustainability and realizing sustainability at lower cost? What incentives could stimulate your customers to choose sustainable deliveries and returns? And by aligning operational data with e-fulfillment partners, how do you know if those sustainable options are really sustainable options?

The most sustainable delivery is delivering well at the time and place where the consumer wants to receive the order. That consumer must be at the wheel. I prefer that parcel delivery company that informs me about the packages coming and gives me options to postpone the parcel or deliver it elsewhere. With the abundance of data, that should be possible.

We should deliver together: then the consumer does not have to choose

Webshops and parcel companies should consolidate deliveries. Then the consumer doesn’t have to choose at all. No consumer wants ten parcel companies at their doorstep. Not even for groceries. It doesn’t fit in our streets anymore. Joint, consolidated delivery starts at the beginning of the delivery process. Later bundling is difficult and expensive.

Walther Ploos van Amstel.

Source: Ministery report

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