We are all used to online shopping with tons of sites offering a huge number of choices at our fingertips. We no longer have to make several trips to find something we really like. This decreases the number of times we use our cars, and thus reduces emission due to our cars. However, when we shop online, the products are delivered to us using trucks and they have to be packaged, increasing waste and emissions. So, let’s take a look at the debate of online shopping vs. offline shopping and make an informed choice.
Online shopping vs. offline shopping: which is more eco-friendly?
Carbon footprint of offline shopping
One of the things which cannot be ignored is the mode of transportation. Transportation is factored in when we weight the online and offline shopping green credentials. In store shopping carbon footprint depends on the distance from the home to the store, and the method of transportation. If a person uses a bicycle to reach the store, or public transport, then the emissions will be zero or much reduced. But if a car is used, then the carbon footprint of offline shopping increases.
The number of items bought also matters, and whether you are going alone or with others. If you carpool with friends or family and make several purchases at one go, from one store, the eco footprint is less. Also, if you have to hop from store to store trying to find the right product/s, then your carbon footprint goes up. In offline shopping, you can sit in the comfort of your home, and browse through several sites till you find what you want, without using any vehicle at all, so your footprint due to transportation is almost nil.
And if you have to return something, that makes it another trip to the store, so the emissions from your car are added to the in-store shopping carbon footprint.
‘Showrooming’ is not good for the environment
A habit that some shoppers have is ‘showrooming’ i.e. trying out items in an offline store before buying the same item online, is perhaps the worst way of shopping. This is because the emissions from the vehicle going to and back from the store is added to the emissions from the online delivery transport. It is better to find out the correct size and buy online only, or if you want to try something out, buy it offline only.
What does research say
Several studies have been done on the environmental impact of online retailing, out of which we are presenting a few. According to study done by Carnegie Melon, the online shopping delivery uses ‘less primary energy’ and produces less emissions of CO2 than offline retailing. The study concluded that overall, e-commerce had approx. 30% less energy consumption than offline retailing.
In online retailing, the items are shipped directly from a warehouse, whereas in traditional retail, the items are shipped from the warehouse to a store, then there are the emissions due to unsold items being returned to the warehouse. Added to that is the emission due to the customers.
Another study by MIT in 2013, found that is someone lived at a longer distance from the store, and had a less efficient mode of transport, then it would be more eco-friendly, transport wise to buy from online stores. The study found that offline shoppers have almost double the carbon footprint of the online shoppers, who do not have the habit of ‘showrooming’. This study therefore found that environmental impact of online retailing is less than offline retailing.
One day delivery – is it worth it?
However, the transport impact of e-tailing changes drastically when one day deliveries or fast shipping is considered. Due to the high competition among the online retailers, they are offering deliveries in one day. So, the deliveries which would have been done in one truck would require up to five trucks going to the same neighborhoods, thus increasing the carbon footprint of online delivery.
According to research done by MIT, an online shopper who opts for fast delivery increases their carbon footprint by up to 25%. The researchers of the study noted that the fast shipping programs would impact the environment negatively in the long run.
Companies such as Amazon and Walmart do not want to lose customers so they are unlikely to stop their one- or two-day shipping strategies. But actually, in order to retain customers who prefer sustainable alternative to traditional shopping, online retailers should be upfront and provide information to their customers that their fast shipping demand would cause more emissions. More and more consumers are choosing brands who align their strategies with Fair Trade and concern for the environment.
While conducting research with a grocery store in Mexico, the MIT study team went on home deliveries, to assess consumer sentiments about the issue of sustainable shipping. College students asked the recipients asked them if they would prefer to wait when given a five-dollar coupon. 70% responded ‘yes’ to this. To those who were not willing to wait, the students told them that they would be saving around 200 trees equivalent to one day delivery or fast shipping emissions. Interestingly, 60% of the consumers changed their minds and said they would wait for a longer time to receive their items.
The study suggested that e-tailers should present online shoppers with easily understandable information about the environmental impact of their choices.
Then again, online shopping can be the sustainable alternative to traditional shopping, especially if e-tailers change their mode of transport to electric or biofuel vehicles, which would reduce the emissions considerably.
Packaging is the next major aspect of online shopping that most people fret about, as it always seems to be much more than what is required. Surprisingly, the Carnergie Melon study found that the impact of packaging in online retailing has very little environmental impact, especially with the growth of recycling channels. The use of eco-friendly materials for packaging also reduces the eco impact of online shopping.
It seems that packaging (especially the bubble wrap used by e-tailers), contribute 22% CO2 emissions of any item, whereas customer transportation accounts for about 65% emissions when an equivalent item is bought in a traditional retail store.
What can e-retail companies do?
Aside from the shipping, the e-tailers should strive to improve the environmental impact of their packaging. E-tailers are increasingly requesting sustainable packaging materials. Instead of using foam peanuts to protect an item, e-retailers should upgrade to sustainable options such as filling the packages with recycled paper or waste paper, waste jute products and so on.
The size of the packing boxes should be chosen with consideration too, as choosing a large box is financial and environmental waste as it adds to shipping waste.
There are certain websites which specialize in customized packing for the start-up retailers with the box size accurate up to quarter of one inch. In this way, there is no need for using bubble wrap or foam peanuts.Tiny boxes of size 2x2x2 are available which makes packaging even more efficient.Some businesses have started to use packaging made from mycelium, derived from mushrooms which is biodegradable.
Boxes made from corrugated paper should be used as they require less paper than rigid boxes.To make online shopping more eco-friendly than offline shopping, e-tailers must make the packaging more environment friendly, have recyclable packaging take-back programs and have a good recycling strategy.
Packaging is a complex issue, as consumers do not want excessive packaging but they do want good to reach undamaged. And going and eating out is better than ordering online food as they generate even more waste.
What can consumers do?
Online shopping seems to have slight edge over offline shopping, but the margin is very less. When e-retailers start to use only green transport and eco-friendly packaging and packaging methods as well as improving delivery logistics and methods, then online shopping will become truly eco-friendly. Till then, it is up to the consumers to work out and choose the eco-friendly option for themselves. For example,
- Not buying breakables online, but buy offline to reduce packaging waste. Or buy online and pick up the item in store. The online browsing for the product will save on actual fuel.
- Stop impulse buying. With so many attractive offers and discounts, it is difficult not to buy anything online. We indulge in impulse buys, for which there is hardly any space in the home or the closet. Resisting impulse buying online is one of the ways to have a reduced carbon footprint from shopping.
- As discussed at length before, one day or fast delivery increases the carbon footprint of your online shopping. A little of planning beforehand will help you choose the standard delivery of five days, where the shipping companies can fill trucks to the full and only one truck might deliver to the same locality. Fuel use and emissions are vastly reduced too.