Tech startups and big companies should team to revolutionize public services and access to branded products, says Joe Comiskey, UK e-commerce capability, innovation and strategy team leader, Unilever.
The origins of e-commerce can be traced back to the early 1970s, but perhaps a more meaningful birthday would be the launch of Amazon in 1995. In the two decades since, the delivery of goods and services ordered online has grown from a tiny niche to a vast market.
A recent report by OC&C Strategy Consultants, PayPal and Google predicts that the four largest e-commerce markets globally — the US, UK, China and Germany — will double in size by 2018 to $1 trillion.
In spite of the enormous scale of today’s e-commerce industry and its continued rapid growth, it is still in its infancy in the context of the long history of shopping. As such there is still an enormous opportunity to change the structure of e-commerce systems in a way that could be profoundly beneficial not just for businesses, but for society too.
The evolution of e-commerce is, of course, increasingly interesting to brands and retailers in every conceivable market, but it has become a focus for Unilever as part of our mission to make sustainable living an achievable goal for individuals and communities worldwide.
We are interested in three entwined aspects of sustainability: to improve the health and wellbeing of individuals; reduce environmental impacts of our business; and enhance the livelihood of the communities we serve.
For example, many physical retail businesses have yet to fully integrate their e-commerce operations to complement their store-based operations. Equally, amongst pure-play e-commerce brands there is huge scope for innovation and creativity that could be harnessed to improve sustainability.
The logistics management aspect of e-commerce, for instance — right down to the use of empty trucks on return journeys to their depots — is ripe for reinvention, as is product packaging designed for on-shelf decision-making.
The potential for e-commerce businesses to partner with NGOs or even local or national service organizations in the health or education sphere could be huge.
Imagine an Uber-style re-invention of e-commerce looping in brands or publicly owned entities designed to revolutionize public services as well as access to branded products.
Mobile technologies in particular could create vast opportunities for new smart, sustainable e-commerce models.
It is with this prospect in mind that Unilever staged ReHack 2015, a mass hackathon which took place on June 25 to 26, involving talented coders, tech start-ups and established businesses.
Under the guidance of top retailers and manufacturers, hundreds of developers competed in teams to create ideas that could reshape e-commerce and make a tangible contribution to our sustainability objectives.
ReHack’s winning idea came from a London-based digital innovation agency, Huddle Creative. Huddle’s initiative tackles the 70% of Unilever’s environmental impact from consumers’ use and disposal of our products.
The team’s proposal was for a household game focused on sustainable practices, playing on peoples’ natural competitive tendencies and desire to compare achievements while educating and incentivising users to make sustainable decisions on a day-to-day basis.
Huddle’s adoption of innovative gamification technology to make this happen, and the scope for the project to leverage Unilever’s global platforms in order to engage a wide consumer base, made the proposal a standout initiative from ReHack.
A future in sustainability
Unilever is also in the process of developing a wider selection of the ideas that came out of the event to pilot and scale across its business. However, in the interests of preserving our competitors’ intellectual property, further details of those projects remain under wraps for now.
ReHack was an important part of Unilever’s drive to work in partnership with tech innovators whose ideas could make a difference to our business and the consumers we serve.
The idea of big organizations working with talented individuals or start-up companies to foster innovation, and at the same time lend their great ideas the commercial clout to help them succeed, is a fast-emerging trend.
In the long term we believe sustainability will become a pivotal factor behind consumers’ purchasing decisions. Working with smart tech innovators enables us to reach a broader spectrum of ideas and experience that will enhance our relationship with consumers.
A long road ahead
We have put sustainability at the heart of our long-term business strategy at a global level, for the simple reason that we are convinced that corporate performance will be profoundly influenced by the degree to which companies integrate sustainable practices and ambitions.
With its reach into the lives of millions of consumers worldwide, e-commerce can play a part in all three areas – and unlike bricks and mortar-based models, the rules of e-commerce in terms of logistics, fulfilment and delivery are far from set.
This article first appeared on marketingmagazine.co.uk.