In today’s world, online shopping has become increasingly popular especially now that physical stores have limited access due to the pandemic.
E-commerce has become indispensable with online shoppers increasing every year. Research reveals that over 2 billion people made online purchases in 2020, while e-retail sales shot as high as 4.2 trillion dollars worldwide4.
Thanks to digital modernization, you can sit from the comfort of your home, purchase goods, and have them delivered straight to you. Asides from convenience, there is the question of sustainability. Is online shopping sustainable?
In this article, we will explore online shopping and compare it to in-store shopping, looking at factors like transportation and delivery to answer the question of its sustainability and impacts on the environment.
In this section, we will explore the factors involved in shopping online and shopping in-store. We will look at the impact of both types of shopping on the environment.
One major contributor to environmental pollution is carbon emissions. Carbon emissions are something we must consider when we examine online shopping and in-store shopping.
When you shop for a product, it goes through several processes before getting delivered to a store or your home.
Firstly, a product comes from a brand's distribution center. It then travels to a physical store or parcel distribution centers like FedEx.
At this point, both in-store and online shopping has the same environmental impact.
However, we see variations when we consider the last-mile delivery.
Online shopping may be more sustainable with delivery trucks sending more packages to as many consumers as possible.
Studies reveal that e-commerce delivery has a lower energy consumption and releases fewer carbon emissions than traditional retail1.
Also, a consumer can go through various items on an online store from the comfort of their home instead of driving to a store with a car. Delivery companies are also choosing the most efficient routes for home deliveries.
In-store shopping raises some concern, with 88% of grocery shopping in the US done using cars. This ultimately contributes to the release of greenhouse gas emissions into the environment. However, another research study reveals that mall shoppers purchase an average of 3.5 products per trip3. The study further explains that mall shoppers trip-chain, meaning they purchase more items from other stores in the mall. This means fewer car trips and lesser carbon emissions.
Experts suggest trip chaining as an efficient way to reduce the carbon footprint when shopping from brick and mortar stores.
Research analysis reveals that about 12%-60% of home deliveries fail on the first trip2. This means that a driver might take up to three trips to deliver the same item. Also, when customers demand a next-day delivery, online retailers look for the fastest way to get items delivered to the consumer.
Choosing the combined shipment method might be slower but is more eco-friendly. Instead of delivering multiple orders using a combined shipment, companies switch to airplanes to deliver the orders faster when orders are further away. Planes release more carbon emissions than any other mode of transportation.
In a physical store, a customer can try on various items and check for quality before making a buying decision. This is not the case with shopping online. A customer can only see pictures displayed by online retailers.
With online shopping, return rates go as high as 40% as opposed to brick and mortar shopping which is only 7%.
When consumers return products, it increases a shop or an item’s carbon footprint, ultimately affecting the environment.
Also, when customers return damaged goods, many retailers throw away these products, which end up in landfills. Considering the cost of transportation and logistics, retailers consider it easier to throw away returned items.
Reports reveal that 5 billion lbs of waste from returns end up in landfills.5
Packaging also raises a red flag when it comes to shopping online. Many online shoppers are concerned about the environmental impact of excess packaging, and with good reason. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that shipping boxes made up the largest share of packaging waste generating 33.3 million tons of waste, with 940,000 tons ending up in landfills.
Packaging is inevitable; however, consumers now demand and are willing to pay more for eco-friendly packaging options. This area has received an improvement, as brands now opt for less packaging and use a recyclable cardboard box and bubble wrap that is eco-friendly.
Online shopping is here to stay. It is quick, easy, and more convenient than physical shopping. Sadly, this convenience comes at a costly price for our environment. To shop online sustainably, both the online retailer and customer must make eco-conscious decisions.
This section will look at a few tips to help both online retailers and customers shop online sustainably.
Here are a few tips to help retailers make shopping online environmentally friendly.
The volume of packages delivered to customers can increase greenhouse gas emissions and cause pollution in residential areas. There are a few delivery carriers that have switched to more environmentally friendly shipping options. Companies like Green Courier offer greener shipping options using electric delivery vehicles and bikes for last-mile delivery to customers. When retailers provide customers with eco-friendly shipping options, their carbon footprint can be reduced.
Most products online come in plastic packaging, which has several negative environmental impacts. Retailers can opt for plastic-free packaging like recyclable cardboard boxes to help reduce plastic waste. Also, retailers can avoid using excess packaging and instead use boxes that fit perfectly with the item’s size.
Some retailers offer free returns to improve customer satisfaction. While this might benefit both parties, it is costly to the environment. Sadly most returned items end up in landfills contributing negatively to the environmental footprint. Adding costs on returns will help customers shop more carefully to avoid any additional fees.
Creating detailed product descriptions will help customers make informed decisions when they order online. Retailers can invest in quality images that give the customers a better look at the product. This will help reduce high returns on items they purchase.
Aside from shipping and delivery, retailers can take eco-conscious steps to conserve energy in their major warehouses, retail outlets, and local stores. For example, turning off shipping and packaging equipment and lightbulbs can help save energy and also reduce costs on energy bills.
Here are a few tips to help online shoppers make more eco-friendly online purchases.
When shopping, it is more efficient to order all items at the same time. This way, retailers can transport all purchases in the same delivery truck. With every online purchase, delivery trucks go on the road. This helps to reduce the number of home delivery trips.
Avoid choosing express deliveries. This prevents retailers from consolidating packages efficiently. Most retailers offer fast deliveries to attract customers. However, this comes at a costly price for the environment.
Choosing a slower shipping option helps retailers consolidate your package in an efficient and more environmentally friendly way. You can also select greener shipping options like electric vehicles if available.
Some consumers use online shopping merely as a supplement to shopping at physical stores. This doubles the environmental impact of increasing carbon footprint. Instead, shop online only as a replacement for traditional shopping. For example, if the warehouse is far away from your home, online shopping may prove the best option. However, to purchase items like fast-moving consumer goods, you might consider taking a walk or using public transport to the closest physical stores.
Consider shopping with a retailer that sells eco-friendly products. Check for sustainability certifications to confirm that the products you are purchasing are eco-friendly. Look out for companies with plastic-neutral policies that offset the plastics produced by their supply chain.
Finding the right store for sustainable purchases can take lots of time and research. With these eco-friendly online stores, you can satisfy your shopping needs most sustainably.
Related: Best Zero Waste Stores for Plastic & Packaging Free Goods
Are you looking for an eco-friendly online store with a range of sustainable products? Earth Hero has a wide range of products from kitchen and bathroom products to clothing and accessories, zero waste beauty products, pet products, and many others.
Earth Hero stocks products from over 150 sustainable brands. Their products come with appropriate product descriptions that explain why each product is sustainable. They also offer carbon-neutral shipping. With Earth Hero, you are sure of convenient and eco-friendly online shopping.
Etsy is an ethical online shopping site that allows local artisans and small businesses to sell their products to a larger customer base. Etsy offers a wide range of products but is popular for selling sustainable beauty products like zero waste conditioners and shampoo, skincare products, and makeup. They also use carbon offset programs to offset their shipping.
Little Market is an eco-friendly store that provides products made from thousands of skilled artisan women in different countries. They offer a range of sustainable gifts and decor, handmade to improve lives on every sale. If you are looking for plastic-free containers, decors, gifts, and kitchen and bathroom items, Little Market has got you covered.
Thrive Market is a sustainable online grocery store that provides a wide range of healthy organic foods, non-toxic items, and beauty products. There are no middlemen, and so products come at wholesale prices. Grocery orders come in recyclable and compostable packaging. They also offer carbon-neutral shipping with products that come from zero waste warehouses.
Made Trade is a sustainable online store that offers ethically produced goods ranging from clothing, shoes, accessories, sustainable furniture, beddings, gifts, and decor. They offer 100% carbon offset shipping and show their commitments to sustainability through donations to environmental initiatives.
Online shopping is convenient and can be more sustainable than driving to a store if done sustainably. You might want to consider several factors to decide if online shopping is best for you. If you live in the suburbs and travel miles to get your shopping done, online shopping is probably the best way to go. Also, consider trying out the tips explained above for more eco-friendly online shopping.
Weber, Christopher & Hendrickson, Chris & Matthews, H. & Nagengast, Amy & Nealer, Rachael & Jaramillo, Paulina. (2009). Life cycle comparison of traditional retail and e-commerce logistics for electronic products
Song, L., Cherrett, T., McLeod, F., & Guan, W. (2009). Addressing the Last Mile Problem: Transport Impacts of Collection and Delivery Points. Transportation Research Record, 2097(1), 9–18. doi.org/10.3141/2097-02
Simon Malls (2019, December) Does Shopping Behaviour Impact Sustainability
Daniela Coppola (2021, July 14) E-commerce worldwide - Statistics & Facts Statista
Optoro (2019) Impact Report
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.