You are probably shopping more online since the pandemic. It might be easier for you to get your package delivered to your door than going to a physical shop, but between plastic packaging, carbon emissions and returns headed straight for landfill, there are hidden environmental impacts of online shopping. With millions of people turning to online shopping for everything from groceries to shoes, the pandemic has fundamentally altered the way people shop.
Digital sales increased by 71% in the second quarter of 2020 and 55% in the third. More than 65% of European and US consumers expect to decrease their overall spending on apparel but expect to spend more via online and social channels during the Covid-19 outbreak. As consumers spending more time at home, small uplifting acts of clothes shopping are helping them cling onto a sense of reality.
But what are the environmental impacts of this newfound obsession with online shopping? Could these consumption habits be problematic for the planet?
The Impact of Shipping
One part of the retail supply chain called “the last mile delivery”: the distance between a store to a customer, or in the case of online shopping, the distance between the distribution centre to the customer. The demand for “the last mile delivery, including “brick & click” (when people order online and the product is delivered from a physical retail store) and purely online retailers, is expected to grow 78% by 2030. There could be leading to 36% more delivery vehicles in 100 cities around the world, meaning more emission, pollution and congestion.
If you used to drive cars to stores before the lockdown, online shopping is more eco-friendly. The main cause of this is the emissions produced by the customer driving to the store. The energy used to power a retail store also has an impact on the sustainability of physical shopping. However, people tend to order one item at a time when shopping online, whereas they stock up on multiple items when visiting a store. The smallest carbon footprint occurs when you order directly from physical stores.
Fast Delivery: Convenient but bad for the Environment
We used to be prepared to wait a few days for the products to get to us. Fast delivery tends to mean stuff gets moved in smaller quantities and vehicles shooting all over the place making single deliveries.
The express shipping options such as next day delivery has the potential of increasing carbon emissions because the air freight produces around three times more emissions than maritime or road shipping. The fast delivery in the last mile delivery is growing by 36% to 17% annually. Amazon, for example, already delivers to 72% of all customers within 24 hours.
The Harmful Impacts of Returns to the Environment
One key factor that needs to be considered is the impact of returns. According to GreenStory’s studies, only 6 – 8% of clothing items are returned when purchased from a physical store, compared to 30% of online orders. In Germany, one in three orders online is returned. A shocking 20% of these online returns end up in landfill because they are unable to be resold by the retailer.
Some people also buy things, particularly clothes, with the intention of returning much of their order, which results in more carriage and mileage.
A shocking 20% of these online returns end up in landfill because they are unable to be resold by the retailer.
The Real Dimension of Packaging
The e-commerce channels, on average, tend to produce more emissions and waste per item. Online purchases produce more packaging waste and multi-item orders often result in multiple deliveries. As digital sales are increasing, it is creating waves of packaging waste. In the US, nearly a third of solid waste comes from e-commerce packaging.
The packaging is ultimately destined for the landfill or incinerated. According to Canopy, some 3 billion trees are cut down every year to produce 241 million tons of shipping cartons, cardboard mailers, void-fill wrappers, and other paper-based packaging.
The film and wrap that goes into bubble mailers are often not accepted by recycling programs. There’s also the question of contamination. If one of these bubble mailers gets to a material recovery facility, it’s going to disrupt the automated machines and take away valuable time and money that can be focused on plastics.
What Can We Do To Reduce Environmental Impacts?
To lower CO2 emissions without affecting profit, some possible solutions are night-time deliveries to reduce traffic by 15%, or “click & collect” customers collection from the pick-up point, which allows couriers to bring a lot of stuff to one place at once. You can also consider reducing the CO2 emissions by shopping locally (products produced in your local area or companies based in your local area so that the products are not shipped to you from far away).
For the packaging waste issue, 100% recycled materials should be utilised. Recycled and post-consumer recycled materials reduce the impact on forest, and use both less water and energy to produce. Innovative materials such as bioplastic which is manufactured from agricultural residues. They take a maximum of 2 years to fully degrade, and they leave no trace in the soil once they break down.
While greening efforts by online retailers are important, until we shift our attitude, the current carbon footprint and packaging waste will be hard obstacles to overcome. We, consumers, need to educate ourselves and change your expectations.
We all expect free-shipping everywhere we shop, but the cost of shipping is quite high on a societal level. Just by choosing a pick-up option and putting a little effort, you can reduce your carbon footprint drastically. You can also consider choosing retailers that are incorporating eco-friendly delivery options (such as zero-emission transportation) or sustainable packaging. Also, try not to return things as much as possible. Keep in mind, the best way to reduce environmental impacts is by only buying things that you really need.