This post is the first of two looking at different aspects of online shopping. E-commerce has grown hugely over recent years with improvements in access to technology, Internet speed, online payment security and delivery (Zhang et al., 2016), meaning it is rapidly becoming the most popular way to shop. Online shopping frees time, reduces the need to transport your items home (Cullinane et al., 2008), and can be done whenever, wherever (Zhang et al., 2016). And if online shopping completely replaces shopping in-store, it could be better for the environment too. But what impact is it really having on our environment? This essay will discuss some of the biggest environmental repercussions of our click-happy habit of buying online. Part two will look at what is being done by big business to solve these problems, as well as some other things to think about when trying to answer the big question: is online shopping or shopping in-store better for the environment?!
The first, and possibly most obvious environmental effect of online shopping is the increase in packaging waste. Although apparently insignificant at the individual level, packaging waste constitutes a huge misuse of resources including wood, paper, and plastic. In China, the most frequently used packaging type is PVC (a thin plastic), which takes at least 100 years to degrade in the soil. The single use of non-biodegradable materials, coupled with a general lack in packaging regulations in many countries (Zhang et al., 2016), strains our current waste system and makes landfill dumping more likely. As well as this, some of the chemicals used in packaging such as formaldehyde in glue can impact human health by causing skin irritation (Zhang et al., 2016). Packaging is an important part of this story: after all, you are not just buying the product itself, but everything it is wrapped in. In some countries, there are relatively tight regulations on the volume and type of packaging which can be used: for example, packaging materials in the UK shrunk by 40% between 1996-2016 as a result of legislative change (Zhang et al., 2016). In other countries, packaging is better designed to facilitate reuse and recycling, whilst others ban many materials altogether (Schöder, 2016). This lack of a standardised approach can make it harder for both sellers and consumers to know what to expect, which further exacerbates the problem.
Packaging is not the only piece of the is-online-shopping-better-for-the-environment puzzle – another huge consideration is logistics. In Great Britain, the average person makes 219 shopping trips per year (Cullinane et al., 2008), many of which might be prevented through buying online (especially in the case of groceries). But logistics is more than just one large vehicle replacing several smaller. It encompasses whether online shopping replaces or supplements traditional shopping (Cullinane et al., 2008); the distance the item has travelled to get to its destination; return orders (especially when return orders are free of charge, encouraging consumers to buy more only to send some back) (Schöder, 2016); type of vehicle and fuel used to transport goods; failed deliveries (so-called “not at home”s, (Cullinane et al., 2008))…. The list goes on! In 2015, Al-Mulani et al. reported that internet shopping does not reduce the environmental impact of shopping unless it can replace 3.5 physical shopping trips, if 25 deliveries are delivered in one journey or if the distance the item has travelled exceeds 50km – which seems to counter the theoretical argument that shopping online saves petrol. But logistics is not only important when thinking about traffic, saving petrol or CO2 emissions, but also air pollution.
Logistical problems are highly focused on the “last mile”, which can generate more CO2 emissions than all other upstream activities (Ensia.com). This segment of the parcel’s journey has received a lot of academic attention, particularly as it is the point-of-use emissions of transport vehicles which can cause high levels of localised air pollution. In a consumer behaviour survey of grocery shoppers in Tehran, it was found that switching to e-commerce could save 20.12 tons (or 25% of 2005 levels) of air pollutants per year, when considering the average emissions, distance and fuel type of each vehicle in the sample studied (Tehrani & Karbasi, 2005). In China, the impacts on air pollution form a cycle: the use of motor vehicles to go shopping contributes to smog and poor air quality, which in turn encourages online shopping: studies show that on severe haze days in China, online purchases increase (Zhang et al., 2016). This is obviously a huge problem which affects human health as much as the environment, but thankfully a range of solutions has been suggested.
One of these potential solutions could be the integration of urban consolidation centres. A study which looked at these in more detail was conducted for students in residential halls at the University of Southampton (woop woop!), where an estimated 1300 courier trips are generated annually to deliver 4000 square metres of packages (Cherrett et al., 2017). Consolidation centres are part of the “last mile”: all packages are sent to a single warehouse, allowing them to be better organised and sent on to consumer homes in fewer vehicles throughout the year. If this happened at the university, it would reduce the number of vehicles by 1000 per year (or from an average 56 vehicles per day to 1), with an annual cost to students of only £18 (Cherrett et al., 2017). If these were set up on a large scale, they could offer an opportunity to improve the current delivery system.
This post has suggested a few things which need to be considered in order to improve the environmental footprint of online shopping. This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully gives you a better perspective of the scale of delivery operations, and of the huge amount of considerations and planning involved in the industry. I don’t know about you, but my mind is frazzled at the thought of it… perhaps it is time for some therapy shopping? (Spoiler: No it is not!).
Al-Mulali, U., Sheau-Ting, L. & Ozturk, I. (2015) The global move toward Internet shopping and its influence on pollution: an empirical analysis. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 22(13), pp.9717-9727
Cherrett, T., Dickinson, J., McLeod, F., Sit, J., Bailey, G. & Whittle, G. (2017) Logistics impacts of student online shopping–evaluating delivery consolidation to halls of residence. Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies, 78, pp.111-128
Cullinane, S., Edwards, J. & McKinnon, A. (2008) Clicks versus bricks on campus: assessing the environmental impact of online food shopping. In Supply Chain Innovations: People, Practice and Performance” Proceedings of the Logistics Research Network Annual Conference, pp. 358-363
Ensia.com (n.d.) In store or online – what’s the environmentally friendliest way to shop? [online] Available at: https://ensia.com/features/environmental-cost-online-shopping-delivery/ (Accessed: 23/05/2020)
Saner, E. (2020) Delivery disaster: the hidden environmental cost of your online shopping. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/shortcuts/2020/feb/17/hidden-costs-of-online-delivery-environment (Accessed: 23/05/2020)
Schöder, D. (2016) The impact of e-commerce development on urban logistics sustainability. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 4(03), p.1
Tehrani, S.M. & Karbasi, A. (2005) Application of E-commerce in local home shopping and its consequences on energy consumption and air pollution reduction. Available at: https://www.sid.ir/en/Journal/ViewPaper.aspx?ID=50252 (Accessed: 23/05/2020)
Zhang, M., Chen, Y.& Shen, Y. (2016) China’s Environmental threats of internet shopping packaging wastes. J. Environ. Anal. Toxicol., 6, p.401