Green retail therapy

Is Online Shopping Better For The Environment?

If you’re an eco-conscious consumer, you’ve probably wondered which shopping method is best for the climate. Here’s how your options compare.
Posted on
August 19, 2022
Is Online Shopping Better For The Environment?

Over the past few years, online shopping has evolved. From shoes to groceries, dental floss to furniture, there’s hardly anything you can’t get delivered to your doorstep, from anywhere in the world, in a super short shipping time.

Once a novel approach to indulging in retail therapy, it’s become a dominant method of getting our goods, quickly and conveniently.

But is online shopping helping or harming the environment? Let's take a closer look.

Deliveries have variable carbon footprints
Photo by Adrey-Popov on Shutterstock

Is online shopping bad for the environment?

If you’re looking to cut down on your carbon emissions, you may want to pause to read this before hitting “Add to Cart” on your next impulse buy.

Sure, on the surface, if it’s between getting a package dropped off at your door on a delivery route versus getting into your car and driving to a mall to pick up one or two items before heading home, the online option might look like a no-brainer.

Is shopping online or in-store more sustainable?

The truth is, there's little difference between shopping online and in-store—at least, to a point. Researchers have found that there’s very little difference in carbon impact between in-store shopping and online shopping when it comes to the first stages of the product’s journey: from the factory, to a warehouse, to the physical store or distribution centre.

But where the real significant shifts in emissions come in is during what retailers and researchers call the “last mile”—that last leg of the journey, from distribution centre to doorstep, or store to your home. 

So in fact, that decision to get an item delivered or to pick it up yourself makes the biggest opportunity of all for change.

Photo by Adrian Sulyok on Unsplash

How does online shopping affect the environment?

1. The carbon footprint of last-mile delivery

The carbon footprint of delivered items varies by industry and product. For most things, packaging and last-mile delivery are often the largest sources of emissions.

For example, according to research by Walmart, when it comes to groceries, people tend to order more products per shop online than they would in-store (which reduces the total impact of each individual item).

However, the specialized packaging, requiring insulation and/or cooling, as well as coordinating schedules for home delivery, make doorstep delivery typically the most carbon-intensive method of shopping. 

2. Returning an item increases its carbon footprint

For clothes and other products, the issue isn’t so much packaging as it is returns. Returns make up a huge chunk of the emissions caused by e-commerce. 

In fact, just moving returned goods back to the warehouse introduces more than 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year in the U.S. alone—that’s close to what 3 million cars might put out in the same time span.

And that doesn’t even cover the emissions from the reported five billion pounds of returned items that can’t be resold, and end up in the landfill.

As returns get more and more prevalent—and are enabled by large e-commerce companies through generous return policies—this figure is sure to increase.

Over half of online retailers offer free return shipping and, according to one 2020 survey, over a third of online shoppers had returned items in the previous three months. 

3. Increased emissions from traffic congestion

Last-mile delivery and e-commerce have had huge implications on carbon emissions and traffic congestion in major cities around the world.

The crushing demand of our desire for convenience has the World Economic Forum forecasting 36 percent more delivery trucks on the road around the world by 2030—and with them, an emissions hike of 32 percent.

However, there are real and practical ways of managing that impact.

If retailers start adopting greener strategies, like using electric vehicles and droids, making deliveries at night, and encouraging customers to use parcel lockers to pick up their shipments, we could see a 30 percent drop in delivery emissions and congestion.

Read more: 7 ways to shop more sustainably

in-store shopping has its carbon price tag
Photo by Cam Morin on Unsplash

Is in-store shopping better for the environment?

Now we know that the environmental impact of shopping online has pretty significant global implications, especially after you factor in returns, specialized packaging and rush shipping.

However, your trip to the store still comes with a carbon price tag, depending on where you’re shopping, how you get there and how many items you’re picking up.

What's the carbon footprint of shopping in-store?

When it comes to in-store shopping, the biggest variables in carbon emissions come from how you get to the store and how many items you’re buying. While it does take quite a lot of energy to keep shop or mall lights on and shelves stocked, those emissions aren’t so different from keeping a distribution centre running.

That gap is flipped and widened for single item purchases. A dedicated store trip to pick up a single item results in 2.5 times more carbon emissions than ordering that same item to your house. 

So in-store shopping is not always the best option for every shopping scenario. But there are benefits to brick-and-mortar retail locations that go beyond potential carbon emissions savings: Physical retail helps support local jobs and generates millions of dollars in property and sales taxes.

If you go a step further and shop at a local small business, you’ll be contributing USD $48 for every $100 spent back to the local economy, says the U.S. Small Business Association. (A larger, national retailer or big box store generates $14 for every $100.) 

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels

How can you reduce your carbon footprint when you shop?

You can minimize your carbon footprint both online and off by making a few conscious changes to your habits, and shopping with brands that share your eco-friendly values.

Read more: 24 ways to save money and live more sustainably

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Jessica Wei
Written By
Jessica Wei

Jessica Wei is a writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in the Guardian, GQ, and the Independent. She'll sneak an anchovy into any dish she's cooking.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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