Online or In-Person? How to Shop for the Environment

by Lizzie Taber

What you can do

  • Shop at companies that minimize packaging waste 
  • Opt out of same day delivery
  • Buy in bulk and from as few shops as possible.

It is no surprise that as our lives have shifted online with the rise of the COVID19 our shopping practices have as well. Early studies about COVID19’s ability to live on surfaces and the infectious dangers of being in public have turned individuals to online shopping. (1) With both the CDC and WHO proclaiming the safety of receiving packages, many individuals felt safer turning away from brick and mortar shops. This transition has not been felt equally across all industries, with online grocery shopping leaping by an unprecedented margin. Luxury and clothing brands saw sales declines but as individuals search for pandemic enjoyment sales saw rises (5). 

This trend is said to pose an environmental dilemma. But why? What difference does it make whether goods are shipped to a store or to your door? Some argue that this trend could actually be beneficial. Online shopping opens up new eco friendly markets. Likewise, fewer in person shoppers would mean less cars on the road, less stores which require heating lighting and building. Carnegie Mellon’s Green Design Institute found a complete transition to online shopping could lead to up to a 35 percent reduction in energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions (3). While fewer individuals driving to stores would have an impact on CO2 emissions, there are more factors to take into account. 

A study by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering found that most estimates of CO2 emission reductions from online shopping were vastly overestimated. Causes include that prior to the COVID pandemic, consumption patterns pointed to an increase in online shopping without a parallel decrease in in- person shopping. Meaning the same emissions from personal vehicles with the added emissions of delivery trucks. The presence of delivery trucks werewas also found to increase overall time spent in traffic, again upping emissions. People’s shopping patterns are also differentshop differently  when browsing online. People often buy from multiple sources and don’t buy in bulk as they do in person, increasing the amount of transportation needed to deliver their goods. Likewise, there remains the issue of last mile emissions which refers to the most environmentally significant portion of the online shopping process,. Wwhen delivery trucks have to drive to individual and often dispersed residences. The CO2 emissions of the last mile can be reduced by shoppers and companies by shoppers consolidating their purchase and vendors placing as many customers as possible into a single delivery tour. 

The impact of online shopping doesn’t end with CO2 emissions. Much of the most environmentally important impacts of online shopping come from packaging and returns. Online purchases result in more packaging waste. In 2014, 35.4 million tons of container-board were produced in the U.S. alone and that doesn’t account for bubble wrap foam and other harmful packaging. Likewise, only around 6-8% of clothing items bought in store are returned compared to 30% of clothing bought online. In the U.S this accounts for 36 million dollars in returns. 20% of online returns are thrown away as they cannot be resold this results in 3 tonnes of CO2 emissions. 

While online shopping may remain the most viable option for the moment, there is little certainty that the transition back to in person shopping will occur when COVID19 levels reach lower levels. The shift to online shopping predates the pandemic. In 2016, the Census Bureau estimated that online retail sales had risen by 15.8 percent from the previous year. (2) Currently, the pandemic means brick and mortar shops are struggling and tastes are shifting especially among younger generations (1). 

It may be hard to make the transition back to in person shopping, or at the moment impossible. However, whether you shop online or in person, there are things you can do to decrease your environmental impact. Shop at companies that minimize packaging waste. Only order things you need, don’t fall victim to retail therapy, and try to minimize returns by checking sizing. Don’t use same day delivery as such options rely on aerial freight which causes greater emissions. When you buy, buy in bulk and from as few shops as possible. When shopping in person take environmentally friendly transit.