It's a misconception to think that online shopping is more environmentally friendly than shopping at brick-and-mortar locations. Shopping online and home delivery can have a disastrous impact on the environment.
The large footprint of online shopping is mostly due to the packaging, shipping, delivery, and return of consumer goods. Technology, online retail, and e-commerce innovation are positive things but also have drawbacks.
To help you make more mindful purchasing decisions as a well-informed consumer, here is everything you need to know about the impact of online shopping on the environment.
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What impact does online shopping have on the environment?
The largest impact that online shopping has on the environment lies in the packaging, shipping, delivery, and return of small, partial, one-off purchases. The footprint of e-commerce increases with a larger number of separate deliveries and returns.
We are on the verge of a global social and environmental crisis. Overproduction and overconsumption lead to enormous amounts of waste, pollution, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions.
It's now faster, easier, and cheaper than ever before to buy and return items online. Many brands and retailers offer free shipping and free returns to their customers. And many consumers shopping online now expect at least fast deliveries and easy returns.
Unfortunately, consumers' multiple purchases and returns have a detrimental impact on the environment. They create large amounts of pollution, carbon emissions, and waste. Returning items bought online can easily double emissions due to transportation.
A lot of returns end up in landfills to decompose or be incinerated. Sometimes, they are sold again to new customers. Only a small fraction of returns are recycled or donated to charitable organizations.
But a lot of consumers don't know what happens to their purchases after they return them. Many brands and retailers keep it a secret. There is still a huge lack of transparency and accountability from industry giants.
Oftentimes, it's a lot cheaper for internet retailers to dump or burn returned goods, rather than trying to sell them again. Greenhouse gas emissions produced in manufacturing become wasted and further emissions are released as waste decomposes or burns.
Online sales still account for the most item returns in e-commerce. Nearly half of all clothes sold online will be returned by customers. And returning clothing is highly detrimental to the planet.
Most products sold online today travel around the world many times before simply ending up in landfills. And consumers return a large number of products each year with only a small fraction of them truly being defective.
This phenomenon releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Many returns end up being thrown away. Not every returned item ends up back in stock to be sold again.
Consumer goods returns create a massive amount of waste and a giant carbon footprint for online shopping. It also creates a big hurdle for brands and retailers that sell online.
Many companies simply don't have the resources to handle these massive returns that online buyers generate. So they destroy them. It's much cheaper for businesses to throw out returned goods rather than resell them.
Especially when online shopping, products come with plastic packaging most of the time. Most online stores sell and ship products in disposable plastic containers and wrap goods in polystyrene.
Quality packaging is important to transport and distribute items between manufacturers, retailers, and end-consumers. It contributes to appealing product design and sets online businesses apart from the competition.
Unfortunately, the packaging isn't always made from renewable or recycled materials and designed to optimize resources. Most of it generates harm to the environment and ecosystems by increasing waste and plastic pollution.
What are the negative effects of online shopping?
Online shopping impact the environment and consumer behavior negatively by making it easy for buyers to order multiple, smaller purchases and return them more often since they can't gauge the quality and fit as well as they would at a brick-and-mortar location.
There are plenty of ways online shopping negatively affects the environment. It consumes a lot of energy and other resources and produces large amounts of pollution, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Each purchase we make online has a significant impact. Everything we buy and have home-delivered supports people, organizations, and businesses in the industry. But it also affects the environment in the process.
Our shopping addiction is extremely damaging not only to the environment but also to ecosystems and human health. We have reached record high plastic wastes, water, air, and soil pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Some people may think that online shopping is a great and easy way to lower the carbon footprint of our purchases as it saves traveling to traditional retail stores.
Unfortunately, the digitalization of retail contributes to the throwaway culture that encourages consumers to buy more than they need and only use their purchases for a limited amount of time.
It's highly convenient to have consumer goods delivered to your door, and then return them for free most of the time. Some people even go to the extreme of buying new clothes online just to pose in pictures and post on social media.
We are all tempted to consume more and more. Many consumer goods are getting cheaper but it's a terrible habit to make a purchase when we don't need to.
Online shopping encourages us to buy more products, more often. Buying new things on an impulse seems so harmless but it's very disastrous to the environment on a large scale.
In a consumerist society, people are trained to find online shopping pleasurable and addictive. But our shopping addiction has destructive consequences on people, animals, and the planet.
Is online shopping more environmentally friendly?
Online shopping can be more environmentally friendly but it isn't always so. Purchasing in bulk, avoiding returns, using carbon-neutral delivery, and sustainable packaging are some of the best ways to make online shopping eco-friendly.
Some online businesses are already trying to be eco-friendly. They use new technologies, materials, and business models to save energy and significantly reduce the carbon footprint of online shopping.
Many towns, cities, and councils, as well as brands and retailers, have programs in place to collect, recycle, and upcycle used products. Check out their website to find out if they are collecting old items in a store near you.
Many online retailers are working together with services and logistics providers to decrease the disastrous environmental impact of online shopping on the environment.
Revaluing waste and ending the practice of destroying unsaleable products must become the norm to ensure a more sustainable world for future generations.
Carbon-neutral shipping is an astounding way to support climate protection and reduce the impact of online shopping on the environment. It ensures a sustainable contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
The transport of consumer goods releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. Achieving carbon neutrality should be a priority for intra-country and international shipments.
A good portion of transport-related greenhouse gas emissions is saved this way. Using carbon-neutral shipping also conveys a clear engagement for environmental stewardship.
It's a challenge to remove all carbon emissions happening during shipping. There are millions of parcels shipped every day. One way is to prevent harmful gas emissions and offset greenhouse gases that cannot be avoided.
Many online retailers make active contributions to certified climate protection projects that offset carbon emissions happening during transport.
Carbon offsetting makes sense for a lot of people. It allows them to invest in environmental projects around the world to compensate for their carbon emissions.
Many carbon offset projects also provide other people with better living conditions. Offsetting online shopping resulting emissions is a great way to reduce its ecological footprint when more climate-friendly alternatives aren't possible.
Climate-neutral shipping should be important for every business that operates online. Environmentally friendly shipping should be the norm to neutralize the emissions that arise during transport.
As consumers, even the small steps we take add up and drive change on a global scale. We can all make a difference by being more thoughtful as consumers and encourage companies to become more sustainable.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.