Online vs. Offline Shopping: The Eco Debate
With stores shuttered for Black Friday sales, online shopping was the primary choice of snatching those deals versus a trip to the over-crowded malls. With a 22% increase in online purchases, this Black Friday marks the second-largest online spending day in the history of the U.S. And as a lot of us turn to e-commerce this holiday season for the good of our health, one question has been raised. Is it more sustainable to shop online or offline?
With stores shuttered for Black Friday sales, online shopping was the primary choice of snatching those deals versus a trip to the over-crowded malls. With a 22% increase in online purchases, this Black Friday marks the second largest online spending day in the history of the U.S. And as a lot of us turn to e-commerce this holiday season for the good of our health, one question has been raised. Is it more sustainable to shop online or offline? The advantages of e-commerce for consumers are many, but some have argued shopping online is the more sustainable way to shop to curb your carbon footprint. But is this really the case? Generation Investment Management released a report titled “The Carbon Footprint of Retail: E-Commerce versus Brick and Mortar” that concludes that greenhouse gas emissions for e-commerce are less than what it would be to operate a physical retail store for a large e-commerce retailers like Amazon, however, this calculation model doesn’t account for small to medium sized businesses. And on the other hand, another study conducted by Deloitte for Simon Property Group found that e-commerce was far less sustainable than shopping at a mall. So what’s the verdict?
“Free Returns” translates to, “Let me buy everything I’m interested in and return what doesn’t work!” And sadly, the numbers don’t lie. Online shopping leads to five times more returns than shopping in brick and mortar simply due to the fact that what you buy online doesn’t always meet customer expectations upon delivery. Approximately 40% of online sales are returned versus 7% from brick and mortars and those returns don’t always get resold. Damaged goods or returns that are no longer on the sales floor often end up as waste to be sent to the landfill. So if you’re looking at an object online, be sure you know exactly what you are buying before clicking purchase and avoid the consumer centric mentality that comes with “free shipping & returns.”
As the world moves away from plastics and excess, one of the more obvious sources of waste is packaging. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that plastic and other packaging makes up around 30% of total U.S. waste annually. But, of the 34.5 million tons of plastic waste generated each year, only 9% is recycled, with most of this waste being shipped to other countries. When receiving online orders, individual items are often wrapped separately inside multiple cardboard or corrugated boxes and plastic bags. Deloitte’s study shows shopping online creates five times more emissions from packaging for online orders (corrugated boxes, bubble wrap, etc.) compared with the emissions associated with use of plastic/paper bag consumers typically bring home from the mall. But, with growing consumer demand for the most environmentally friendly option, we’ve seen companies like EcoEnclose and Repack gain traction with reusable, compostable and recyclable packaging.
Brick and Mortar can have quite the hefty footprint. So it is often thought that shopping online is more sustainable. But when we factor in all of the steps in getting a garment from a retailer to consumer, there isn’t a clear winner. After clicking “Buy” online, your pair of jeans magically arrives at your doorstep ready for wear. But, what you didn’t see were the numerous stops your new pair of jeans made to reach you. E-commerce shops have distribution centers where the pair of jeans you just bought live. From there your jeans are shipped out to a retailer or another distribution center like DHL or Fedex. Sounds simple, but this last leg of the journey between the warehouse and your house is considered to be the most energy intensive. And when you add in a personal car trip to make a return, or pick up a missed delivery, the emissions are greater than a trip to the store. However, driving to and from physical retail shops also has its impact. If we are driving to individual stores for individual items, we're racking up quite the footprint. But Deloitte found that on average, we buy three and a half products per trip to the mall, as well as visiting other places on the way to the mall. Experts call this “trip-chaining” and you can think of it like a carpool or doing more with less! But, in order to determine which is the more eco-friendly way to shop, we have to look at what a typical home delivery and shopping trip looks like. The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport has found that a “50-mile delivery round by van produces 21,665g of CO2. When this is divided equally among the [typical] 120 drops, each drop is responsible for 181g of CO2; a standard return shopping trip by car of 12.8 miles, however, generates 4,274g of CO2, 24 times more than the average home delivery drop.”
So what is the conclusion?
Without an agreed upon system of measurement and the many varying factors like, number of items bought per trip, returns, and transportation hiccups, it’s tricky to say. But, what we can do when shopping online is compile our wishlists, try to receive everything in one package, choose the slower and eco-friendly shipping options (offset those emissions!), and keep pushing brands for eco-friendly and reusable packaging options. And when we’re not sure how something is going to fit or feel, shop in person, take public transportation, shop in your neighborhood, and group your errands together! If we, as consumers, are urging brands to use their businesses for good and produce with intention, we must be shopping with intention too. Even though the answer isn’t as clear as we’d like, these factors are something to consider when choosing the best method of shopping. But most importantly, buy less, choose well, and make your purchases last!