Over the past few years, online shopping has evolved.
Once a novel approach to indulging in retail therapy, it’s become a dominant method of getting our goods, quickly and conveniently.
In 2020 alone, prompted in large part by the pandemic, e-commerce grew 44 percent in the U.S.—nearly three times the growth it saw in 2019—with shoppers spending around $861 billion online.
This isn’t surprising to anyone who spends any amount of time online or on social media.
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 shockingly short shipping time.
The surprising carbon footprint of online shopping
But 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.
But toss in rush delivery, high instances of returns and additional packaging, and things start looking a little dicier.
Is online or in-store shopping more environmentally friendly?
So which shopping method is more sustainable? Isn’t it all basically the same? Either way, a package is getting to your house, whether it’s via a delivery truck or you making the trip to the store.
The truth is, it is mostly the same—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 center.
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 center 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. Here’s why.
How does online shopping create carbon emissions?
1. The 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. Returned items
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.
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. 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.
How does in-store shopping create carbon emissions?
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.
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 center 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 $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.)
7 tips to help you shop more sustainably
As e-commerce becomes more and more commonplace, it can be hard to avoid, especially during times of uncertainty (like during a global pandemic!).
Here are a few tips to minimize your impact when shopping:
1. Bundle your purchases
Bundle your items so you’re ordering more at one time, and try to get the products packaged and shipped together.
It may take a little bit longer, but you’ll avoid doubling the emissions just from having two items shipped separately.
2. Bundle your errands
Try to squeeze in more errands to run while you shop so you get more mileage out of your trip.
3. Purchase clothes in-store
Purchase clothes and other frequently returned items in-store so you can try on these items and only take home what you need.
4. Buy locally
Avoid shopping on international sites where the product will have to travel much longer distances to get to you.
Try to shop at stores that are most local to you and consider walking, biking or taking public transit to get there.
5. Request less packaging
If you must get items shipped, check to see if the company you’re ordering from offers a “low packaging” option at checkout, or order them from a physical store (the least carbon-intensive model of shopping of all!).
6. Use parcel lockers
Look into local parcel lockers to relieve last-mile delivery pressure and avoid missed deliveries.
7. Sleep on it
Lastly, for non-essential impulse purchases—you know, the type of items that social media platforms are so effective at selling—think about sitting on your shopping cart just a little longer to ponder the real cost of consumption.
One trick: set yourself a calendar reminder for a few days in the future to look at it again and see if the shine has worn off before you click the buy button.
And if you find yourself questioning whether you really need what you’re shopping for, consider taking it as your cue to abandon that cart before proceeding to checkout.
Chances are great that you, and your wallet, will be happy with your choice!
Keep up to date with the Good News(letter)
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.