Can Online Shopping be Eco-Friendly? What Research Says
Online shopping has skyrocketed in the past year.
CBC shares that e-commerce sales hit an all-time high at $3.9 billion last May 2020.
That’s a 99.3% leap from the numbers seen over February – right before the lockdowns.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted retail sales to e-commerce more than ever before.
If you’ve noticed how much you’ve relied on online shopping lately, you’re definitely not alone.
Being told to stay at home, forced to change social routines; it feels like online shopping is what can count as leisure time for many of us.
And it doesn’t hurt that online shopping is so efficient, too. Everything you need (and convince yourself you need!) can be purchased with a few clicks.
But how exactly does this impact our environment? Let’s find out if there are environmental benefits to online shopping after all.
How Efficiency Plays a Role
In a previous study conducted by Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, their results suggest “e-commerce delivery uses less primary energy and produces less CO2 emissions than traditional retailing.”
The team compared the environmental impact of buying a single 1-pound product via online or at a retail store. Only the transit was looked into, not the energy impact needed to manufacture the product.
They found that e-commerce had 30% lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions compared to physical stores.
It kind of makes sense, really. Brick-and-mortar stores also ship items to the shop itself. They use energy to operate daily, and shoppers have the additional cost and carbon footprint getting to and from the store.
Meanwhile, online retailers deposit all orders in major warehouses. These serve as hubs for items that are either shipped or returned. It’s a much more efficient setup than having multiple stores open daily.
Aside from that, parcel carriers are more optimized than private transport or commuting to shops.
What about the single-use packaging that’s filling up our landfills and oceans?
Here’s the shocking claim: it’s the lesser evil if you look at the grand scheme of things.
Although packaging accounts for 22% of the CO2 emissions of an item purchased online, customer transportation contributes far more – an estimated 65% of emissions all while buying the same item at retail.
Online Shopping Can Be Eco-Friendly: Here’s How
From a more recent study, MIT researchers support the finding that online shopping can be considered eco-friendlier than shopping in physical stores.
In fact, they argue that carbon footprint becomes twice smaller if you shop online than if you routinely go for a store run.
Here are a few practices researchers note about how to really make online shopping work for you and the environment:
1. Shopping online EXCLUSIVELY is key
We learned that physical shops produce more emissions than online systems.
But, results suggest that if you really want to make substantial eco-savings, you have to give up brick-and-mortar shopping and go completely online.
Online shoppers tend to view online retail as a complement, rather than the main source of products.
If your online spending doesn’t actually replace physical shopping, you’re only adding to what you purchase overall (raise your hand if you’re guilty).
You’ll end up with a bigger carbon footprint than either online or store shopping alone.
2. Think location, location, location
Being conscious of your footprint means considering your location.
If you’re living in a suburban area, online shopping could be more appropriate. You’ll drive or commute less often to purchase goods.
But if you’re in a major city, chances are the physical stores are nearby. Hence, shopping somewhere in your proximity would be more efficient.
If you prefer shopping in person, experts suggest combining trips, or if possible, walking, biking, or taking mass transit rather than your own car.
3. Patience over ‘Express’
Everyone who’s ever shopped online knows that giddy excitement you feel awaiting your package. There are so many memes depicting exactly this!
Photo from Buzzfeed.com
But if you’re used to clicking the ‘Express’ option, then you’re not really lessening your carbon footprint after all.
Opting for same-day or two-day shipping forces the online distributor to consolidate deliveries. Instead of planning for the most efficient way, the seller will have to choose the fastest way.
Amazon has a ‘combined shipments’ option that enables the company to combine all your orders into one delivery. It won’t be ‘ultra fast’. It will arrive slower but it will also be less demanding for the environment both transport and packaging-wise.
4. Lessen your car use
This is a big revelation, isn’t it?
How many times have you felt guilty about all that single-use plastic and cardboard packaging, when in fact it’s vehicle use that’s doing more harm to the environment?
Sure, ecommerce uses air and land transport, but again, they are designed to be as streamlined and cost-effective as possible. Not like one’s random car trips to and fro the store.
The costs of private transport add up. And they are far more damaging than your parcel’s packaging.
Of course, foregoing a car might be impossible for people living in rural or suburban areas. What you can do is find shops that are on your routes, such as going to work or school. Try not to get too out of the way just to buy a latte.
And if you really want to drive to the nearby farmer’s market, do it by all means. It’s not always about carbon emissions. There are also significant environmental gains when you support the local economy.
5. Shop with the environment in mind
What if we told you that you could choose to offset carbon emissions while you shop?Platforms like Shopify present this option by partnering with an app, Offset.
How does it work?
With carbon emissions, we could actually calculate how much is emitted from doing day-to-day activities. Governments, companies, and even individuals can then pay to capture or prevent these emissions.
There’s a cost per metric ton; from a few dollars to hundreds depending on the size, the location, and the tech used for the carbon offsetting project.
Now, this may sound a little too much, like you’re sort of just absolving your sins of consumption conveniently, and it may not be your style.
It’s controversial, yes.
But it’s one way to address the overwhelming issue of C02 emissions we generate daily. More and more e-commerce platforms are making the move to support environmental protection.
Shopify is one where you can do this while you shop. For a small sum of your per-purchase or monthly bill, you can contribute a portion to activities like forest protection. They will detail where your dollars go, how many trees are planted or protected because of your support, just to start.
We will be adding this option here in our Shop so that customers like you can reduce emissions – fight the good fight – even if you’re right at home.
Online shopping may not be as damaging as you may have thought it to be.
Yes, curbing single-use packaging consumption is still pretty great, but if you’re intentional with your online shopping you may be helping the environment after all.
The key is to practice the first R – Refuse what you don’t need! If you continue to mindlessly buy items online or at brick-and-mortar stores, you won’t be doing the environment (and yourself) any favors.
Making the environment a priority entails buying less, buying used, shopping online with regular delivery rates, and shopping nearby if you prefer physical stores.