Hello everybody! In today’s post, we’re answering a question, a frequently asked question, we will be looking at shopping, and which shopping method: online or in-store that is the most sustainable. I have come across this question literally hundreds of times, and I often get comments or DMs from people asking if it is okay to buying eco swaps online, or if they should continue with the conventional item they can get from a local shop. As this notion is causing a lot of confusion, and the potential impact of online shopping is keeping some consumers from trying eco swaps I think it would be a good topic to dive into, so let’s do this.
Now the short answer: online shopping actually has a smaller impact than buying in-store.
One study found that “e-commerce delivery uses less primary energy and produces less CO2 emissions than traditional retailing (…) Overall, e-commerce has about 30% lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions compared to traditional retail”
An MIT study also showed online shopping being more sustainable than in-store shopping, both in terms of transportation emissions and energy consumption. A product that you buy in-store has to be sent from a factory to a warehouse, to the shop, and then you take it home. When buying online, the transportation impact is often reduced because it won’t have to stop by a store first. The MIT study also found that consumers who shopped exclusively online could have a carbon footprint (related to their shopping) almost 2 times smaller than that of a traditional shopper.
BUT, and now comes the long answer. There are multiple factors that can change the answer of which method of shopping that is the most sustainable, and some of these factors, many them actually can be determined by the consumer (so we got that going for us).
Online shopping accounted for 1/7 of retail purchases worldwide, in 2019. One can only assume that the numbers have gone up since then, due to the global panini. The market is also valued at 3.5 trillion dollars, and it is rising by more than a fifth every year.
THE MOST IMPORTANT MILE, IS THE LAST
What actually surprised me in terms of the transportation impact of shopping is where the majority of that impact comes from, and where we can do the most to reduce impact. It comes from “the last mile”, the last bit of transportation to the consumer’s home. The author of the book “Decarbonizing Logistics” Alan McKinnon says this: “Wherever your latest purchase comes from, transport from the store or warehouse to home likely dominates the delivery footprint”. This last bit of transportation actually accounts for more individual impact than all the previous transportation in the supply chain.
THE LAST MILE, COMPLICATIONS
These studies are conducted based on statistics on how people shop in-store, as an overwhelming majority of consumers have to drive to a store to buy an item, and then drive back home. In contrast, a delivery car can make 50+ stops at different households, thus the transportation footprint per item would be lower because no one is driving only to transport 1 parcel.
However, and this is where it gets more nuanced if you’re able to bike, walk, or take public transportation to go and pick up an item in-store, the impact of that last mile is going to become much smaller, and that might be more sustainable than delivery.
Then there is also the notion that the delivery is not always successful. Actually, up to 60% of home deliveries are reported to fail the first time. This means that the delivery van will have to make multiple trips with the same parcel, that’s more emissions, or that the parcel will be dropped off at a pick-up point. Now, if the consumer then drives their car to go and pick up the parcel, then we’re back to square one. Even worse, if the parcel is returned to the company, then that’s double the transportation emissions. My point here is, every false move increases the carbon footprint – so the more successful and efficient the delivery is, the more sustainable it is (this is something that the shipping companies are working on internally as well, but a way for consumers to help out is to be home during delivery, or plan the delivery according to your schedule so it won’t be taken back)
also check out: THE IMPACT OF AMAZON (and the richest man alive)
SPEED DELIVERIES INCREASE IMPACT
There are other factors that affect the impact of buying online, a very important one is how much you’re in a hurry. Speed delivery and overnighting goods can actually triple the transportation impact of online delivery. Because the supplier will no longer have the flexibility to bundle multiple orders into a single delivery, but rather will have to quickly deliver fewer packages, thus the van will be less full and that means that the transportation impact is shared between fewer products. Then there is plane delivery which obviously is much more impactful than other slower options.
THE TRUTH ABOUT RETURNS
Let’s return briefly to the topic of returns. I have actually made an entire video that goes into detail with this topic, how an overwhelming amount of returned goods are actually thrown away, because it is cheaper to make new products, and by the time the returned item could be repackaged and sent out again, in many industries, it would already be “outdated”, as such returned goods often end up in landfills.
Furthermore, with an increase in online shopping, returns also increase. This is in part because returning goods is made really easy by online retailers. It has also something to do with the tendency consumers can have to buy more than they need, only to send the things back they don’t want anyway. A study from 2019 shows that a whopping 40% of online purchases are returned, in contrast to 7% of in-store purchases.
Of course, this all ends out in a discussion about conscious consuming, avoiding overconsumption, and avoiding the really unsustainable companies. It comes out to the simple notion of not buying more than you need.
I think it is also important to remind ourselves that even as the transportation impact of online shopping is lower (under the right circumstances) than in-store shopping, it does not mean that the overall impact of that product is sustainable. We still have to be wary of supply chain transparency, workers’ wages, material sourcing, energy consumption, etc. This is just me saying that if what you read in this post was that Shein clothes you order online are more sustainable than going down to a local shop and buying a locally made garment, then I would advise you to read the post again. However, if the only thing that keeps you from swapping out your plastic-packaged liquid shampoo with a sustainably made solid shampoo bar is the fact that you have to buy it online, and you worry about the transportation emissions, then, by all means, go get it.
So in order to make this issue even more confusing, let’s sum up some of the aspects that can affect the transportation impact of a purchase #lightninground
- “The last mile” aka the transportation from store or warehouse to your home has a bigger transportation impact than all the previous transportation in the supply chain
- choosing speed delivery will increase the impact, in contrast to the regular delivery
- driving to pick up an item, or a parcel will have a higher impact than having it delivered to your door
- choosing green transportation to pick up items in-store will likely have a smaller transportation impact than home delivery
- Studies show that online shopping is more sustainable because the studies are based on similar supply chains, if a shop is not using warehouses, or has a shorter supply chain than the online option, that might be more sustainable – like local brands, craftspeople, and artists.
- When buying online look for national distributors before buying from overseas companies
- Buying a sustainable product online has a lower impact than continuing to use a disposable/less sustainable product bought in-store
- If you live in rural areas where you have to drive to the shop, then online shopping with regular home delivery is more sustainable
- If you think there is a chance that a product might not fit or work, trying and buying in-store rather than returning might be the best option (use sizing guides when shopping for clothes online, and know your measurements)
- Do remember that transportation accounts for an average of only 12% of a products collective impact