December is, perhaps, the most important month in retail. Every year, without a fail, consumers rush to stores in order to buy gifts for their loved ones and themselves.
Last year, American consumers spent a total of $125.91 billion during the holiday season, and the period between Dec. 15 and Dec. 24th accounted for 40% of all sales for the month.
In 2020, experts expect the same levels of spending as Christmas draws nearer but, because of the pandemic, most sales will likely happen online as people continue to follow social distancing rules.
Now comes the question: is shopping online environmentally-friendly?
Is Online Shopping Bad for the Environment?
One can imagine why online shopping would be harmful to the planet. The products come in a lot of single-use plastic packaging and covered in rolls of bubble wrap. Fleets of trucks deliver the packages straight to the recipient’s front door. Then, if they are not satisfied with the purchase, they would send the products back, creating more waste and adding to the already significant carbon footprint that comes with online shopping.
The return process, in particular, is problematic. It creates more waste. If the RMA management deems the product unfit to return to the stock, it goes straight to the landfill.
Fashion items have a high return rate. A survey from January 2019 revealed that over a third of online shoppers return their purchases in the previous three months. Returning products is only becoming the norm.
However, online shopping is also harmful to the environment. The trucks that deliver packages release fine particulate matter, called PM 2.5, into the air. One study claimed that the knock-on effects of online shopping will worsen the traffic and, therefore, air pollution.
Online Shopping Versus In-Store Purchases: Which is Better for the Planet?
Last year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made a pronouncement that the company’s next-day delivery service generates the least carbon footprint. He said that, because the product ship directly to fulfillment centers nearest to the customer, the fastest option is better for the environment.
Shopping in brick-and-mortar stores can create a huge carbon footprint. Driving to a location, for example, generates emissions. If more people shop offline using their cars, it exacerbates air pollution.
Moreover, people tend to go back and forth to the store to compare prices to shop around for alternatives before they make the purchase.
A big brand has more locations, too. They require more resources compared to online shops that only have one warehouse where all the merchandise is stored and picked up.
However, Bezos may not be entirely accurate when he said next-day delivery is better for the environment. The time constraints may reduce the overall environmental advantage of online shopping over traditional retail. Typically, one truck can drive to one location to make multiple deliveries to more consumers per day. However, one-day shipping makes it more difficult to optimize delivery schedules and ensure that all packages heading to the same destination can be shipped together.
So, while, overall, online shopping is better for the environment than traditional retail, it still is not good for the environment. It still creates waste and generates emissions. Moreover, those who choose next-day delivery are making the negative effects of online shopping on the planet even worse.
What Can Be Done?
The fact that both online shopping and traditional retail create waste and emit harmful gases to the atmosphere only means that things can still improve. There are ways to reduce the carbon footprint of online shopping and traditional retail.
Experts recommend that to reduce the carbon footprint of online purchases, consumers should buy in bulk. Clustering purchases meant that the last mile, which is when the product travels from a facility and toward the house of the recipient, would have fewer emissions. The last mile, by far, generates the greatest carbon emissions in online shopping.
Retailers, on the other hand, can offer to send a product to the store nearest to the consumer’s home for pickup. This way, the last mile is eliminated, reducing carbon emissions.
In addition, brands should find ways to keep a product being shipped safely from damage without using single-use plastic packaging and bubble wrap. In the past couple of years, packaging alternatives that are compostable or reusable have entered the market. Although they cost slightly more than plastic, they are better for the environment. Perhaps, offering eco-friendly packaging as an option during checkout for an additional fee may be better for the company. Studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly deliveries.
Consumerism is contributing largely to climate change. While neither online shopping nor traditional retail is good for the environment, consumers and companies can do some things to reduce their negative impact on the planet.