Most of the time, the items we order come inside a cardboard mailing box. Depending on what we purchase, our items are often further surrounded by bubble wrap.
This is enough to make you question the sustainability of online shopping, right? This isn't even considering the effect of fuel-guzzling delivery trucks.
There must be concern about those effects, especially since our online shopping habits have increased throughout the years, as shown by the following graph:
In 2021, retail e-commerce sales amounted to approximately 4.9 trillion U.S. dollars worldwide. This figure is forecasted to grow by 50 percent over the next four years, reaching about 7.4 trillion dollars by 2025.
The benefits of online shipping for the consumer are clear, including saving time. People argue that it is too time-consuming to shop the way we did before online shopping. "You go, browse, try things on, and then wait in line to pay" (Ell, 2018).
Many people do not have time for this, and as a result, we are buying more and more online. For this reason, we have to evaluate the impacts of our actions.
This article analyzes the effects of online shopping and how it compares to traditional in-person shopping. Notably, we will look at the carbon footprint of both and see which one is lower and hence better for the environment.
Carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere due to the activities of individuals, organizations, or companies.
In our case, we will investigate the carbon footprint of online shopping versus in-person shopping.
How Does Online Shopping Pollute?
As mentioned earlier, items purchased online are delivered by delivery trucks that emit pollutants such as fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5. The presence of PM2.5 in the air has many effects on human health.
Moreover, between 20% and 30% of a city's carbon dioxide emissions come from last-mile deliveries (Davies. 2020).
Last-mile deliveries are the final—and most polluting—part of the delivery process. When a product travels from the warehouse shelf to the back of a truck to the customer's doorstep, the "last mile" of delivery is the final step of the process; the point at which the package finally arrives at the buyer's door.
In addition to being a key to customer satisfaction, last-mile delivery is the most expensive and time-consuming part of the shipping process (Davies, 2020).
According to a new study by the World Economic Forum, urban last-mile delivery emissions are set to increase by more than 30% in 100 cities globally. Another effect is the increase in commutes, by 21%, taking up to 11 minutes longer due to the extra traffic on the road (Whiting, 2020).
The following figure demonstrates the expected increase in delivery vehicles, emissions, and congestion, as a result of an increase in online shopping:
Look at the second graph (emissions). You will see how CO2 emissions are projected to increase from 19 to 25 million tons CO2 by 2030, and that both freight transportation and the transportation of the parcel (last-mile delivery) increase.
All this to say that the carbon footprint will continue to go up.
It goes without saying that the more we order online, the more cardboard waste we generate.
However, this hypothesis is questioned by Rachel Kenyon, Vice President of Fibre Box Association. She argues that there is not actually more cardboard due to an increase in online shopping.
The Fibre Box Association has been tracking shipments of corrugated card boxes—the type used in online order shipping—since 1940.
Rachel argues that "there's no data that shows that there's a spike in box shipments equal to the spike in e-commerce growth... E-commerce is not a pure additive to box shipments. Instead, there's a trade-off."
The trade-off is that cardboard boxes full of clothes that once went to department stores now go directly to customers.
There might be smaller boxes shipped, but the total square footage of cardboard shipped is more or less the same. That means three or four smaller boxes with clothes inside might be equal to or even less cardboard than one big box sent to a store (Ell, 2018).
The Real Impact of Online Shopping vs. In-Store Shopping
For his thesis, Dimitri Weideli described a traditional shopper as one that will perform all of the steps of the buying process by visiting a brick-and-mortar store, including multiple trips during the search step.
The following table shows some selected consumer behaviors.
In contrast, a Cybernaut will perform all steps online by searching, purchasing, and returning the products using the retailer website. The other behaviors are variations of these two (Weideli, nd).
While there are few studies and information about the carbon footprint of shopping, both for online and in-store shopping, it is known that the carbon footprint of the buying process depends on the product being purchased. Product characteristics such as volume, weight, price, and packaging directly affect the environmental impact or the allocation of emissions across the supply chain (Weideli, nd).
Wiedeli investigated the carbon footprint of a toy for online and traditional shopping. The results are shown below:
The graph shows that the Cybernaut's carbon footprint is almost two times smaller than a traditional shopper.
The majority of the carbon footprint for a traditional shopper comes from customer transportation when you take your car to shop in-store.
On the contrary, the main component for a cybernaut is the packaging.
So, Which One is More Eco-Friendly?
Based on the above research, online shopping seems to have a lower carbon footprint and hence less negative environmental impacts than traditional shopping. This is the case provided online consumer behaviors are environmental-friendly.
By being environmentally friendly, I mean not being impatient and opting for fast delivery options that can triple the impact of freight transportation, as shown in the previous graph.
Avoiding multiple trips to physical stores significantly reduces the emissions to the atmosphere. As to the problem of packaging emanating from online shopping, the theory that there is an offset holds up; indeed, those same packages coming to your doorsteps would have ended up in stores.
The only difference is that you are not using your car and traveling miles to get them, while delivered packages arrive at your doorstep through an optimized delivery process.
How to Improve Your Overall Environmental Impact From Shopping
Just because online shopping is better for the environment does not mean you just have to shop online to reduce your emissions.
Be mindful of your behaviors; be willing to wait an extra couple of days to receive your package instead of opting for fast delivery.
You can also plan your shopping to avoid rushing. You can group your purchases since every purchase puts a delivery vehicle on the road. Retailers can often pack all of the items into a single box (or at least get all the stuff into the same truck or van), so then you've done all of your shopping in a single "trip" (Heffernan, 2021).
There are many strategies to lower the carbon emissions from retail. In my ideal world, we would all shop online, not only as a replacement to in-store shopping. There would be sustainable delivery fleets on the roads, and recycled materials would be used as packaging.
I understand that we cannot close all stores, but there are ways to optimize their locations in dense urban areas to reduce the length of consumers' trips to the stores.
Both online and in-store shopping have their pros and cons when it comes to the carbon footprint they leave on our environment. It is important to be mindful of the way we shop and make choices that will have less negative impact. Online shopping seems to be more eco-friendly overall, but there are ways we can all reduce our emissions from retail purchases.