Headline article image Sustainability innovations: 17 new tech innovations for business sustainability

Sustainability innovations: 17 new tech innovations for business sustainability

How businesses can use tech to cut their carbon footprint.

At a glance:

  • How retailers can reduce emissions

  • Tips for suppliers and manufacturers

  • Ways salons can boost sustainability

  • Tips for food and beverage outlets

  • Advice for all small businesses

In the past few years, the conversation around climate change and sustainability has grown too loud to ignore.

As natural disasters grip the planet and politicians and protestors grapple with climate change, sustainability has transformed from a niche issue to a critical concern for businesses – as well as consumers.

For small business owners, the hardest part of implementing sustainability practices can be managing costs and simply getting started. But author and senior professor of sustainability science at Lund University Kimberly Nicholas recommends starting small and staying accountable.  

And although there are many small steps that businesses can take to improve their environmental footprint – from switching to energy-efficient office equipment to ditching single-use plastic bags – new technological sustainability innovations have the potential to make a more dramatic impact (not to mention offering increased cost savings).

Below, we’ve rounded up some of the newest and most exciting tech innovations in the sustainability space for retailers, suppliers and producers, fashion and beauty brands, and salons.

For retailers

Reduce returns with AR and 3D 

In the wake of the pandemic, e-commerce sales have exploded, but a new issue is emerging just as fast – online returns. For retailers, dealing with unwanted merchandise is costly and time-consuming, not to mention environmentally unsustainable. 

Augmented reality (AR) is one sustainability innovation that can help reduce returns as it offers shoppers the chance to ‘test’ how products fit or look virtually - and that way they’re less likely to return their purchase. Platforms and apps like Plattar or HoloMe (which is used by ASOS for their virtual catwalk) make it easy for businesses offering everything from fashion to homewares to integrate AR or 3D into their sales strategy.

Reward customers who don’t return

Another way to reduce returns is to reward customers who choose not to return items. On Fleek rewards consumers with points every time they shop without returning. These points can then be redeemed as gift cards or used to plant a tree. The innovative platform currently partners with the likes of Net-a-Porter and Farfetch. 

Encourage resale and monetise the re-commerce

Retailers that are serious about sustainability are increasingly looking to join the ‘circular economy’.

As sustainability consultant and Cool Planet director Daniel Harper explains, this is “essentially a ‘no waste’ business model. We want to move away from buying a product, using it once and then getting rid of it – even if it is recycled, as recycling still has environmental impacts and, the truth is, only a percentage of what’s thrown into ‘recycling’ gets recycled.”

One way for retailers to participate in the circular economy is to encourage resale by partnering with organisations such as thredUP, which offers resale-as-a-service for UK and US retailers, The RealReal or Depop

Another option? Enable a plugin such as AirRobe, which allows consumers to add to their ‘circular wardrobe’ by storing the purchase details of an item so it can be easily resold at a later date. AirRobe has been adopted by several Australian brands, including The Iconic.

Switch to e-receipts

Are you still printing receipts? More and more businesses are doing away with paper receipts and moving to e-receipts to save on paper and costs (emailing receipts also makes it easier for customers to keep track of purchases and offers an opportunity to build your email list). Point-of-sale platforms, such as Square and Lightspeed, provide e-receipts as well as a multitude of other tools.

Make the change to high-tech packaging

Packaging is a major driver of waste within the retail industry, and businesses that are serious about sustainability should look at alternatives to single-use plastics. 

Global sustainable packaging innovation company Grounded, for example, offers innovative home-compostable, 100-per-cent recycled PE and plant-based recyclable packaging, while other suppliers, such as Hero Packaging and noissue, offer everything from eco-friendly tags, tissue and tape.

For brands that create their own products

Aim for accurate demand forecasting 

Reduce overproduction (and curb carbon emissions and waste) by using demand-forecasting technology to accurately predict how much stock is needed.

Board, for example, provides business intelligence and predictive analytics; DemandWorks also offers multiple forecasting plans to suit varying budgets.

Switch to virtual samples 

The traditional pattern-making and design process, involving fabric samples and prototypes, can lead to unnecessary waste. However, a new generation of digital innovation takes the whole design process online. 

End-to-end software programs like Optitex allows brands to create true-to-life 3D prototypes, while the 3D-modelling tool Modo is used by brands such as New Balance.

Trace your supply chain with tech

You can’t manage what you don’t measure, which is why digital innovations like Sourcemap are so important, as they help businesses map their end-to-end supply chain – from raw material to finished product – and identify and improve the environmental footprint of each stage.

“Entire lifecycle analysis of a product is important,” explains Harper, “from how the materials are grown to how it’s shipped, to what the consumer does with the product once they’re finished.”

Communicate your eco-credentials 

It’s one thing to make your products or service more sustainable, and another thing to communicate this clearly to your customers. Technology such as Provenance allows you to easily turn complex supply-chain data into credible shopper-facing communications. This sustainability innovation tool easily highlights products that are carbon neutral or feature recyclable packaging, for example. 

Manufacture with next-gen materials

Organic natural fibres have long been preferred by conscious brands. However, scientists are increasingly experimenting with high-tech fabrications that require even less energy and water to produce – and forward-thinking fashion and beauty brands are keeping a close eye on this technology. 

For example, Bolt Threads is a innovation that uses natural sources to create sustainable materials such as Mylo™, which is derived from mycelium (the underground root structure of mushrooms) and is a leather-like material, as well as Microsilk™, a vegan silk that is used by designer Stella McCartney. Similarly, Renewcell has developed a material called Circulose®, which is made from 100-per-cent textile waste and scraps. 

For salon owners

Consider waterless products

Currently, one of the biggest trends in beauty is waterless products, and brands like Susteau are ‘reimagining haircare’ by creating powder-to-liquid formulas that reduce the water in the bottle, as well as energy and materials across the entire supply chain. 

Switch to sustainable hair foils

Salons create industry-specific waste, including foils from hair treatments. One way to cut carbon emissions is to opt for recycled foils, such as Paper Not Foil, paper hair foils made from 100-per-cent recycled industrial scraps and degrades. They’re reusable, compostable and available in Australia, the UK and US.

Reduce all salon waste – especially chemical 

Salons generate plenty of chemical waste, and it’s important to be mindful of the chemicals going down the drain, such as ammonia, formaldehyde, and polyethylene glycols (PEGs). 

Consider switching to natural formulas or reaching out to businesses or platforms that can help manage chemical waste. In the US, green waste company Green Circle Salons is one such organisation, while Salon Sustainability in the US, and Australian social enterprise Sustainable Salons help salons, barbers, dermal clinics and pet groomers.

For food and beverage

Consider compostable plates and cutlery 

Using compostable and biodegradable plates, cutlery and containers is one of the key ways food and beverage businesses can become more sustainable.  

One of the better-known global brands is Bio-Pak, which offers a wide range of biodegradable and compostable packaging, as well as custom-printed options. Wooden cutlery has the added benefit of being home compostable. 

When choosing suppliers, “It’s important to understand that there is a difference between degradable and biodegradable – degradable just makes plastics into microplastics. You want products that completely break down,” explains Harper.   

With bans on single-use cutlery being considered in Australia and the UK, switching to compostable options is an important step for food and beverage businesses.

Find a solution to food scraps

“For the food and beverage industry, reducing food waste and composting is one of the key things to focus on,” continues Harper. Composting, in particular, is one of the easiest ways to reduce the amount of food waste that ends up in landfill.

“In Australia, Compost Connect is a great digital resource – you punch your postcode into the search bar, and it finds local composting services,” says Harper. In the UK, more and more local councils are collecting food waste and composting, while in the USA, different cities and states have different search services. Good Start Packaging has the most comprehensive map search by state.  

Sell your surplus food… 

It’s estimated that between 30 to 40 percent of the entire food supply in the US is wasted per year. That’s why apps such as Too Good To Go, available in the UK and US, allow businesses to list their surplus food for clients to find at a reduced price. Not only do you monetise your surplus food and sell more, but you are likely to find new and recurring customers. Y Waste App offers a similar Australian equivalent. 

Or give it away  

Food Rescue US uses a web-based app to connect volunteers to local businesses with fresh food surpluses. The volunteers then transfer the food to social service agencies who feed community members. The app gives time, date and availability information to make it easy for all parties.  

In Australia and the UK, you can donate surplus food to OzHarvest and UKHarvest, achieving the same result. Rather than letting anything go to waste, by donating you help the environment and people who might otherwise go without. 

All references to any registered trademarks are the property of their respective owners. Afterpay does not endorse or recommend any one particular supplier and the information provided is for educational purposes only.


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