Is Shopping Online Better For The Environment?
Before You Hit “Complete Order”
Stuck inside for the past year, many of us have embraced retail therapy from our couches. Online shopping was already on the rise when the pandemic hit, and according to a Bloomberg report, “stuff” has made a significant comeback. People are purchasing physical items, not experiences—and they are buying it all online.
“We’re seeing a shift in terms of what people are buying,” Rod Sides, a Deloitte vice chairman, told the news outlet last fall. “Folks are focused on the home and a little more decorating. Destination travel isn’t there, like it has been in the past.”
Even the reopening of businesses and mass vaccinations can’t stop us from clicking the “complete order” button. Forbes predicts consumers will spend $4.8 trillion in e-retail sales this year. That’s up from $2.8 trillion spent by 1.8 billion consumers in 2018.
If online shopping truly is the future of retail, what kind of environmental impact does it have?
How Do You Shop?
“Shopping online has, on average, a 60 percent lower carbon impact than shopping in-store,” boasts the Fashion Footprint Calculator, a tool launched by online secondhand retailer ThredUp last year. “Nearly 85 percent of in-store’s impact comes from driving there.”
This may be true, but only if everything goes according to plan. If customers are constantly shopping online and only purchasing a few items at a time, the environmental impact soars above that of in-person shopping.
“Frequent online purchases produce more packaging waste, and online items tend to come from different distribution centers,” explained Sadegh Shahmohammadi to CNN. A Ph.D. student in Environmental Science at Radboud University, Shahmohammadi is one of six researchers behind a 2020 study comparing the greenhouse gas footprint of online versus in-person retail shopping.
“Both factors result in higher greenhouse gas emissions per item,” he said. This means that different items from one order can come from different places. An example of this is the one and only Amazon, which has nearly 200 fulfillment centers globally, and counting. Though it now offers the option of having items shipped together, customers have noted how the company often turns one order into several separate shipments—and with expedited shipping options at that.
Express shipping options put extra strain on the environment as well, prioritizing time efficiency over energy efficiency. In his Master Thesis for MIT, Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping, Dimitri Weideli dubs frequent online shoppers as “cybernauts” and those who consistently purchase virtually and choose fast shipping options as “cybernaut impatient.” Weideli found a large discrepancy between the two: “The cybernaut’s carbon footprint was twice as small as a traditional shopper. However, the cybernaut impatient, who always opted for faster delivery regardless of when a van was in their area, almost tripled the impact of freight transportation.”
Then there is the element of returns. Unsure of what size you are? Want to see how that dress looks with your favorite pair of shoes? Return and exchange options are incredibly convenient—it’s fantastic to know that if something doesn’t fit or work with your wardrobe, you can get your money back, or at least exchange it for another product.
However, only 50 percent of returned garments are restocked by most retailers, with 25 percent of them ending up in landfills. And, while six to eight percent of clothing items are returned from in-store purchases, 30 percent of online orders are sent back to retailers.
“One thing consumers should think about before purchasing (with intent to return) is that in personal care and beauty, we cannot turn around and sell a returned product because the chain of custody has been broken,” Ursa Major, a natural skincare brand, explained to us over email.
“Before the pandemic, the annual value of returned goods in the US had been estimated at nearly $400 billion,” stated Forbes in a recent analysis of how COVID has impacted online retail. The article goes on to cite recent reports that “consumers were expected to return $70.5 billion worth of goods purchased during the 2020 Christmas season alone.”
Finding a Fair Fix
What’s the answer to all of this? Small businesses such as LA-based HFS Collective seem to have found a happy medium. Though the average number of pieces in an online order is 1.25, the accessory brand is still setting an example by shipping everything from their office. The business is also committed to sustainable packaging, which further lowers its overall environmental impact.
A hybrid model that encourages cluster purchases may also be key, writes Heather Farmborough for Forbes. “By getting customers to pick up their purchases from a store—a frequent occurrence in Sweden, for instance—a locker or a gas station, emissions can be reduced.”
Likewise, businesses can benefit from vertical integration principles, which open up opportunities for increasingly environmental practices and ethical accountability within retail spaces. While not an exact solution that works for every online brand, it’s a good place to start.
Finally, findings, such as those shared through ThredUp’s Fashion Footprint Calculator, can shed light on our shopping habits, but it’s essential to watch for greenwashing. Hyper-focus on the individual customer’s impact can deflect and distract from fashion’s overproduction problem.
It’s wonderful to consider all of the elements which come into play with shopping—online and in-person—when making a purchase, but don’t let it overwhelm you. Individual impact is only as important as the systemic change happening alongside it. We can’t lose the mountain for the molehill.
How To Consciously Shop Online
To contact brands, we recommend calling directly, using email, or reaching out over social media. Here’s an email template we recommend if you’re not sure where to start!
Ask brands where they ship from and how your order can best minimize items coming from multiple distribution centers.
Before ordering and banking on a possible return, find out what happens to your return once it’s sent back.
Opt for slower shipping instead of paying for speed.
Is the store local? Pick up your order instead and reach out to the brand if they don’t offer this service yet.
Choose less packaging when given the option and inquire about this if the possibility isn’t presented online.
Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and is currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance writer and content creator with a focus in sustainable fashion. Audrey is deeply passionate about conscious living and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.