E-Commerce: Young, Hip, Sustainable? Maybe

Graphic: Pablo

There has been another bout of back-patting in the e-commerce world about how sustainable we all are recently. The general consensus is that e-commerce is good for the environment for the following obvious reasons:

Less paper

So, paper… Has anyone seen the amount of paper which goes with ordering online a lot? Most places still send you a paper receipt, then there are the giant cardboard boxes filled with bubble wrap containing one tiny USB stick, not the mention paper catalogues and advertising materials which get checked in too. While some studies call this a >>footnote<< it is a factor which should not be ignored completely.

Resale platforms are the new recycling

Easy reselling is a wonder wonderful thing the internet has made easier to do. We used to call this op-shopping and it used to help the homeless.

Direct shipping means less transport pollution

The idea behind this is that delivery saves transportation on both ends: Shipping direct from the ware house reduces having to ship to a retailer first. Ordering online shops people driving around in their cars to shop. Statistics do support the claim that e-commerce results in about 30% lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions in 2011.

However, it has to be said, that the most important factor in this 30% figure is customer transport. Not only is this difficult to measure with any accuracy, but this study also assumed a US American shopping culture which involves driving to outlets in the suburbs in single cars. It does not take into account a central mall or shopping district reached by public transport scenario which is the norm in Germany for instance.

More recent research from the IEA 2014 shows that the energy demands of information and communication technology (ICT) account for around 8% percent of overall demand and that this will increase exponentially. While Europe’s energy needs will have increased by 15.5% in 2020, ICT energy use will increase by 84.3%. The devices we use to stay connected use power – all the time. Amazon’s new wind farm is a step in the right direction, but there is more to it than just power consumption. 98% of materials used in the production of ICT result in waste, reclying is costly and reuse is rare.

Better access to information helps customers make the ‘green choice’

Inspired by great design on the internet, I recently thought about adopting a plastic free lifestyle – starting by throwing out all my plastic kitchen stuff…which I could have used for the next 20 years…and buying pretty glass stuff instead. The logic was a little flawed. The internet does give us access to useful information, but it also makes us used to getting anything we want any time we want it. The choices we make are often less than logical because we are human.

Photo: Robert

Dematerialisation: The Crux of the Matter

There are great things happening in e-commerce. Because it is still the industry of younger people who grew up with environmental education, sustainability is part of company culture. Perhaps the most important thing e-commerce has given us, is the power to make environmentally friendly purchasing decisions – whether that be buying second hand, organically or fair trade. But it is not the technology that is sustainable (or not), but it’s use. E-Commerce makes buying easier. It exists to sell more stuff and it does that very well! The problem is, that this is the driving force behind our sustainability problems.

» >>As prices fall, demand and consumption will rise. This is elementary economics. And with accelerating consumption of natural resources, our sustainability just spiral downward that much faster<< – Jih Chang Yang, Industrial Technology Research Institute «

If industry growth is larger than dematerialisation that industry is not environmentally friendly. If e-commerce dematerialisation cannot match its incredible growth sorry guys – it simply isn’t sustainable.

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E-Commerce and the good old lingua franca: Part One – Translation

Photo: hdur

Growing up in rural Australia in the nineties and early naughties I would not exactly call myself an internet native, but I was part of the generation who dreamed of electric sheep, a global community and the worldwide availability of – well anything. But maybe because too few of the dreamers ended up becoming decision makers, or maybe most policy makers really are the zombies they look like. Either way, this vision has not (yet) become reality. A lot of business, even in the tourist industry, still don’t offer an English language version of their website. Too many business are approaching e-commerce with the motto “talk global, think local” and it isn’t going to work much longer – we hope.

English: More Than Traffic

Ignoring the dissatisfied grumblings about linguistic colonialism which inevitably pop up now and again, English has established itself pretty well as the lingua franca of the business world and the anglophone world has benefited significantly from this. Not that I wouldn’t mind if we had stuck with Latin, but considering what e-commerce is doing to my native tongue as it is, maybe Latin is glad to retire into the forgotten (perhaps repressed) realms of the private school classroom.

Businesses, especially in the service industry may not reap immediate benefits from an English language website in terms of turnover, but it is an essential part of brand building. Even with Chinese growth in the e-commerce sector, Manderin is not going to become the international language of business any time soon. In fact, English skills are no longer even a nice competitive advantage – they are a basic requirement in international business.
Before investing in staff training, an English language website and project documentation is always a good start. And so the search for translation starts…

Cost in Translation

Translation comes in many shapes and forms. There is the don’t go there (a staff member with overseas experience), the really don’t go there (an intern with high school English), and then there is good God what where you thinking! – Google translate.

Many companies fall back on these options though because professional translation appears to be prohibitively expensive and it can be. The going rate for a state certified translator varies from approx 1.5€ per line to 20 cents per word. But this service is only necessary for documents requiring a certified translation – which is rarely the case in day to day business. In the long run, employing a bilingual native speaker is the best alternative. International students are an option, but will only be with your company a year at a time. Finding a native speaker with long term residency in your country is the best option, though not always easy.

Advantages of In-House Translators

In-house translators are cost effective

June was not a particularly busy month for me with 1727 lines of translation. At a modest fee of 1€ per line, that’s still a lot of money – at a fee of 20 cents per word, it’s even more. As an employee doing 12 hours per week, I cost a lot less than that – a lot less. If there is a large amount of documentation for a client on the table, the difference can be as much as five thousand Euros in a month. But don’t forget that translation is a skilled profession and bilingual native speakers don’t grow on trees – not every native speaker can speak your language fluently and not every native speaker has plans to stay.

You’ll never to able to pay your translator what they’re worth or even their freelance hourly rate (that’s kind of the point) so don’t be too stingy on their pay package.

Company Native Translators Work More Effectively

Every company naturally develops its own writing style and way of doing things. Being part of a company for a long time makes it easier for your translator to work quickly and to keep the context of their work in mind.

Native Speakers are Multi-Purpose

The position description may require a translator, but once you’ve got a native speaker in the house, they can proof read, write original content, train others, and answer questions for all the other staff as well.


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