Between 2001 and 2015, the number of online purchases worldwide increased by an enormous 125% (Al-Mulali et al., 2015). Part one of this series demonstrated how the purchasing of everything from groceries to clothing, toys and shoes online has been tied to a range of both positive and negative environmental impacts. And when it comes to the negatives, consumers remain blissfully unaware: our preference for immediate gratification through spontaneous purchases often outweighs any consideration of the environmental damage for which we might be responsible. So what are companies doing to improve the current plague of packages? And which is better for the planet – shopping online or in person?
What are companies doing to improve their environmental footprint?
Of course there are a number of players involved in the problems associated with online shopping, including lawmakers, distributers and consumers. But companies need to take the responsible distribution and packaging of their products seriously: wasted resources are not just wasted resources for them, but also wasted money.
As such, a number of businesses are developing new ways to deliver parcels. For example, electric vehicles are receiving a lot of support, as their usage would lower long-term distribution costs and point-of-use air pollution, despite high initial starting costs (Schöder, 2016). Amazon, which ships over 10 billion packages each year around the world, has ordered (according to a press release by the company) 100,000 electric vans to start delivering in 2021 – this is an important move, considering that the company creates the same amount of CO2 emissions as a small country, or 85% of Switzerland’s emissions (Saner, 2020). Amazon, as well as American company FedEx have also shown interest in deploying smart ground-based robots to deliver individual items, or drones to deliver packages through the air (Ensia.com). But perhaps the low-tech solution is the best: bicycle couriers deliver packages to consumers using Deliveroo, and have no CO2 emissions at all (plus you can get a sweet calf workout whilst you work!).
Online shopping vs traditional shopping
Now we arrive at the big question… Is it better for the planet to shop online or instore? There is great potential for a positive environmental impact from online shopping, based on the “3 D’s”: dematerialisation (buying less), decarbonisation (reduced emissions) and demobilisation (fewer journeys) (Cullinane et al., 2008). Hypothetically, a truck which delivers 100 packages could replace 100 individual car journeys (Al-Mulani et al., 2015). By creating a more integrated, coordinated system of delivery, thousands of vehicles could be taken off the road each day, through taking advantage of more recent ideas like consolidation centres or even crowd-shipping, where people can deliver goods for one another on their daily commutes (Tehrani & Karbasi, 2005). But there are still several conditions which need to be met in order for online shopping to be “greener”, at least in my humble opinion, than traditional shopping:
- If the ability to shop online reduces car usage in the general population (Cullinane et al., 2008)
- If shopping online replaces instore shopping, and does not add to it (Al-Mulani et al., 2015)
- If packaging legislation was simpler to understand and standardised everywhere
- If return policies were stricter, to discourage consumers from binge-buying only to send their goods back
- If multiple items were purchased from the same website, to reduce the number of trips to deliver single packages at a time (Al-Mulani et al., 2015)
- If purchases of goods focused on items which cannot be sourced locally, making online ordering otherwise unavoidable (Al-Mulani et al., 2015)
- If the fuel powering the delivery vehicles was sourced from renewable resources, or vehicles used were highly efficient (Tehrani & Karbasi, 2005)
- If collaborative initiatives between suppliers and distributors could be developed, reducing individual transport of goods and promoting efficient delivery (Schöder, 2016)
- If collection points and lockers were encouraged over home delivery, reducing deliveries to multiple locations and encouraging forward-planning of consumers (Saner, 2020)
- If ship and air freight could be more efficiently planned, or reduced altogether
This is a long list of caveats, but also a long list of opportunities for everyone involved in buying, selling and legislating the world of online shopping. The system must be improved for the sake of our resources, our air and our environment. At the moment, I believe that getting everything in-store is better than buying online – but there is no hard and fast rule for this. We have as much responsibility for what we buy as those that sell it, and of course the purchase that doesn’t happen has the lowest carbon footprint of them all.
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
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)