How Online Shopping Impacts the Environment

Published on: Apr 23, 2021fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
How Online Shopping Impacts the EnvironmentMosa Tanksley
The Story

It can feel like just one little click. But online shopping has major consequences for the environment.

I know I’m not the only one with an Amazon Prime account.

True. Even back in 2019, more than 100 million Americans had one of those. So no, the pandemic didn’t make everyone start clicking “add to cart.” But shopping habits certainly shifted because of lockdown. Some numbers: E-commerce jumped from 0.6% of total retail sales in the fourth quarter of 1999, to 16.1% in the second quarter of 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau says. And millennials and high-income earners are leaders when it comes to ordering both essential — and nonessential — items online.

There’s something about getting a package with my name on it. 

Yep, retail therapy is real. Studies show that buying things can help you feel less sad and more in control. Could see why you’d want that. And when it comes to online purchasing, you might get a dopamine boost multiple times: from buying the thing you want, anticipating its arrival, and then opening the package. We get it: You need a box in order to feel the joy of unboxing. But delivery comes at an environmental cost.

What should I consider?

Online shopping can be quick and easy, but it’s worth remembering that getting those packages shipped to you takes a toll on the planet. Let’s break down the basics of the e-commerce supply chain.

  • The warehouses…They can become air pollution nightmares for people who live nearby. Just ask anyone who lives in Southern California’s Inland Empire, which is made up of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. The American Lung Association ranked them No. 1 and 2 most-ozone-polluted counties in the U.S. Not for nothing, Amazon operates 14 fulfillment centers there.

  • The trucks...We know, cars emit greenhouse gases, too. But a 2020 study found that driving to a store can be more eco-friendly than online shopping, partially because consumers don’t tend to bulk buy online. More one-off purchases equals more pollution. FWIW: Ordering online directly from a store rather than an aggregator like Amazon was found to be better for the environment. 

  • The packaging…Curbside recycling programs don’t typically pick up packaging plastic and bubble mailers. Not good for Mother Nature. And although cardboard can usually get recycled, we’re still looking at too many trees dying just for our deliveries. All of the packaging waste makes for more emissions when they are transferred to recycling centers and landfills.

Are companies and lawmakers doing anything to offset all this?

Here’s some good news: A number of online retailers are making the switch to electric delivery vehicles. And major sellers including Amazon and Walmart have announced corporate climate pledges to work toward net zero carbon emissions. That doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating all emissions but could include carbon offsets, which we get into in this guide. Since making that pledge, Amazon announced that its carbon footprint actually grew. Awkward. But they made an additional pledge to start a $2 billion fund to invest in climate change-fighting companies.

How can I shop smarter? 
  • If what you need isn’t nearby…Shop like you would (or should) at the grocery store. Make a list of what you need, and try to buy everything in one click from one source. That’s better than buying single items from multiple vendors on multiple occasions. And think twice before you select same or next-day delivery. Pro tip: If you’re buying from Amazon (and we know you are), pick a specific “Amazon Day.” That’s when you bundle your purchases and have all your items delivered on the same day each week, potentially in fewer boxes, no matter when you place your order.  

  • If you can get to a store or pick-up spot…Then compromise. Take advantage of the convenience of ordering online but pick up your packages at a locker or store. If you’re at a brick-and-mortar shop (remember when?), maybe you’ll small talk with an employee. What a concept. And if you happen to buy in-store, bring your goods home in a reusable bag. Earth thanks you.

  • If you return more than you keep...We’re onto you. Think of online returns as a double whammy of greenhouse gas emissions, because it’s shipping to you and then back out again. It’s estimated that items purchased online are returned more than twice as often as items purchased in-store. And much of the time, companies are unable to resell items that have been returned. That adds up: E-commerce returns account for an estimated 5 billion pounds of waste and 15 million metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. Some things you can do to avoid returning clothes so often: virtually try things on, actually read the reviews, finally get accurate measurements of yourself, and research the fabrics listed (Are they soft? Or will that itchy feeling make you send it back later?).

  • If you don’t really need that item…Take a beat before you buy. Maybe just bookmarking a few products for now can provide the retail therapy rush you crave. Like virtual window shopping without the mannequins. Or instead of buying something new, try upcycling what you already have. Good for the planet and your wallet. 

theSkimm
Same-day delivery might provide an immediate high, but the long-term impacts of online shopping are a major downer for the environment. Do your part. Consider whether you really need that item. And once it’s safe to shop IRL, see if you can make the purchase closer to home instead.

Skimm'd by Carly Mallenbaum, Becky Murray, and Jane Ackermann


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