Sustainability and e-commerce are probably the two biggest topics in the retail sector today. But maybe it is time we put these two together and asked a question many of us are often avoiding: How sustainable is online shopping?
It is easy and efficient – for the most part – but is it actually better for the environment?
Recently I shared a poor experience I had trying to shop in-store with Birkenstock in London. Disenchanted by that, I turned to online stores, as most of us would. Not long after I had found an online footwear retailer that suited my needs and had ordered my product. So far, so good.
What arrived, was a cardboard box which half-filled my dining table. Inside that was another carboard box stuffed with paper, and inside that were my new shoes. My single purchase had created a mound of waste, before we even begin to talk about the environmental cost of fuel and delivery.
None of this is a new concern. During the pandemic, as online shopping became our only outlet in some cases, concerns over its environmental viability were often raised. On top of that, many point to the fact that ordering online is better for the world that everyone driving to shops. In fact, a study by Carnegie Mellon University showed that on paper it is 30% better for the environment to shop online than to travel to the store. And that is good to hear, especially since in June 2020 alone, there were 22 billion visits to e-commerce sites and more than $26.7 trillion spent.
A study by Carnegie Mellon University showed that on paper it is 30% better for the environment to shop online than to travel to the store
But the energy “efficiency” of shopping online requires practical efficiency and 61% of companies admit that last-mile delivery is their biggest challenge. Not to mention the packaging blight it creates.
With that in mind, Deloitte actually suggests that it is actually 60% more sustainable to shop in-store. The sustainability and eco benefits of shopping online are only realised in ideal conditions. But we, as shoppers, do not create them.
We want our products immediately and will often select fast delivery when given the option. The fuel efficiency of e-commerce, compared to shopping in-store, requires vans to do multiple deliveries at once. But reports suggest that some are going out only 10% or 20% full. This means the carbon footprint of each sale is much greater.
Returns are a huge issue too. Deloitte reports that 40% of online sales are returned, even worse, 20% of those end up in landfill according to Green Story, which measures the environmental impact of products.
The sustainability and eco benefits of shopping online are only realised in ideal conditions. But we, as shoppers, do not create ideal conditions
So, do the benefits of e-commerce stack up? There is no doubt that it is a vital tool, but like everything it must be used in the right way. I know we will not all suddenly rush back to stores, but we should always consider whether we are doing things the best possible way.
This goes for retailers too. Physical stores must provide a service which makes shopping there easy and fun. Travel retail can take notes too – essentially it is a visit to the shops with zero carbon emissions since shoppers are there already. The potential for a quick buy or a Click & Collect would be good news for the environment and the industry.