Is Online Shopping Eco-Friendly?

Is Online Shopping Eco-Friendly?

Posted on Nov 1st 2017

If you’re an eco-conscious, e-commerce business and/or online shopper, chances are you’ve wondered, “is online shopping eco-friendly? . As with so many things related to sustainability, there is no black and white answer. For each person and scenario, the environmental footprint of in-store versus online shopping is different and will depend on that person’s shopping habits, what is being purchased, where that person lives, how they travel to the store, etc.

Research has found that in most situations, e-commerce is more sustainable than shopping at brick & mortar retail storefronts. If you, like us, try to make earth-minded choices, read on to learn how your online shopping habit affects the environment, and how to make your online shopping this holiday season as eco-friendly as possible.

1. Go online for the entire shopping process

MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics conducted one of the most comprehensive, unbiased and thoughtful analyses of the impact of e-commerce on the environment, with the ultimate goal of discovering whether online shopping is better for the environment than going to the store. They found that a person’s shopping experience includes three steps: search and discovery, purchases, and returns. The study compares the environmental footprint of three different types of shoppers, taking account their habits the three phases of shopping.

Traditional shopperwho travels to a brick and mortar store (typically in a car) to find items, purchase them and to make any returns.

Cybernaut shopperwho finds items, purchases them and makes returns all online.

“Mixed” shopperwho incorporates both in-store and online shopping in their habits. This shopper may go to the store to discover and research an item, then typically purchases the item online, and makes any returns online or in the store.

The study looks at all aspects of the supply chain required to service each type of shopper - from warehousing, retailing (for brick & mortar), online information flow (for e-commerce), packaging, and transportation.

They found that a Cybernaut shopper’s carbon footprint is almost two times smaller than a Traditional shopperThis is because the single largest component of a traditional shopper’s carbon footprint is from driving to and from the store. Transportation for a Cybernaut has a much lower impact because the carbon footprint of home delivery is lower when executed by efficient, high volume parcel carriers. “Mixed” shoppers tend to have an eco-impact similar to a traditional shopper. In this case, buying online vs in-store is the more environmentally friendly shopping style. 

2. Ship to your home, not to the store

Some chain stores give you the option for an item to be shipped to a physical store for pickup. Companies love this option. Shipping is cheaper for them and, more importantly, it brings you to the retailer where you might impulse buy a few more items. But, this approach moves you from a Cybernaut to a Traditional or Mixed shopper - leading to higher emissions from driving to and from the store. To minimize your environmental impact stick to eco-friendly shops online and/or ship items to your home.

3. Choose ground shipping

The study’s conclusion (that a Cybernaut shopping online has a significantly lower carbon footprint than a Traditional shopper) is true even if an online shopper chooses delivery that requires air transportation.

However, air transport - which is often used for overnight or two-day deliveries - typically generates two to four times the amount of carbon emissions as truck transport (and ten to fifty times the emissions as rail transport!).

We know…it is so tempting to select quick shipping, especially when it is the default option, free or very low cost. And, sometimes we’ve waited until the very last minute to buy a gift, so it feels like we need to select overnight shipping to ensure it is wrapped and under the tree on time. But, if you’re trying to support the environment, plan ahead so you can select ground (even when ground shipping is not the default!), relax and know you’ll get your goods on time. If you are a die-hard procrastinator and are online shopping on December 22nd, consider the option of printing out a picture of the gift for Christmas morning. There is too much going on during the holiday for anyone to use their gift that day anyway - so why not have it delivered to someone’s home a few days after the rush?

4. Shop directly from eco-friendly e-commerce companies

The MIT study described above does not even touch on our very favorite aspect of eco-friendly online shopping - the fact that the e-commerce platform lets purpose-led, eco-minded entrepreneurs shine. Instead of having to bend to the will and cost pressure of retailers, these companies that are sourcing, employing, manufacturing and delivering responsibly can stick to their values and reduce the environmental impact of online retailing.

By shopping through a company’s website, consumers can learn their mission and how they are doing business before making a purchase. In a brick & mortar retail environment, purchases are instead driven instead by flashy packaging, deep discounts, positioning on a shelf, and what the store wants to promote.

Sustainable e-commerce brands that contribute positively to their communities and the planet exist in every industry - apparel, jewelry, skincare, footwear, toys, food and beverage, home goods and more. These goods are often higher quality, more unique and longer lasting than “conventional” counterparts.

If you’re not quite sure where to begin looking for e-commerce companies that fit this profile, check out our  EcoEnclose Pinterest page, where we have cataloged over 1,000 of the eco-friendly businesses we work with.

5. Ask for eco-friendly packaging and recycle your packaging

For the average Cybernaut, packaging is the one component where their carbon footprint typically exceeds that of a Traditional shopper.

Hopefully, by purchasing from responsible companies, your products will arrive in sustainable packaging, resulting in a lower impact than most Cybernauts. By sustainable packaging, we at EcoEnclose mean packaging that is made with recycled content, is reusable or recyclable, and that uses as little material as possible.

But, it never hurts to proactively ask a company to think green with their packaging. For example, let them know not to gift wrap your goods unless they use recycled and recyclable wrapping paper. Or if you’ve ordered multiple items, to wait until all items are ready so they can be packaged and delivered together. Or that they can skip any product packaging step that is duplicative and unnecessary. Not every company has a fulfillment process that can accommodate these request; however, those that can appreciate your passion and any savings it generates for their operation. Packaging like this reduces the carbon footprint of online shopping even further.

Most importantly, when your products arrive, recycle (or reuse if at all possible) that packaging. All paperboard and corrugated packaging can typically be curbside recycled. Most poly mailer and poly bubble mailers can be recycled at grocery bag drop-offs. Some packaging items - such as padded mailers with paper exterior and plastic bubble interior - are tougher to recycle, but sometimes the interior can be pulled out (paper is curbside recycled and plastic is recycled at a grocery bag drop off).

6. Purchase multiple items from the same online company

The more goods that arrive at your door on the same truck, in the same shipping packaging, the better! So if you find an online brand you love, don’t be afraid to shop for several recipients on your holiday list at once.

7. Minimize your returns

Shipping something back to a company doubles a Cybernaut’s transportation emissions. Unfortunately, as much as one-third of online purchases are returned! It is near impossible to eliminate returns altogether (whether they are purchased online or at the store) - clothes may not fit properly or your recipient just may not fall in love with their gift the way you thought they would. However, taking the time to research companies, their products, and thinking through what the friends and family members on your list really want can go a long way at making returns the exception and not the rule. When you do need to return something, do so by shipping it back via ground using the original packaging you received if possible (and if this isn’t possible, by reusing existing shipping packaging you already have).

8. Consider purchasing carbon offsets

With carbon offsets, you are enabling the reduction or sequestering of carbon emissions (through actions like planting trees that would not have otherwise been planted or funding a stalled renewable energy project).

Programs such as Native Energy help you calculate your carbon footprint associated with something specific (such as your online shipping, or your air travel) and then buy offsets to counteract or balance these emissions. It is not meant to be a panacea or a free pass to become wasteful in your day to day life. But, after you’ve made whatever choices possible to support the environment this holiday season, this can be a great way to help close the gap.

Now that we’ve begun to answer the question of whether or not online shopping is eco-friendly, you can make more informed decisions on your holiday shopping. One of the best bonuses of online shopping is purely selfish and has nothing to do with the environment or supporting great businesses. Getting your holiday shopping done on the computer saves so much time and means no fighting crowds and congested parking lots. This is time that can be spent with your family and friends, taking a hike, baking something delicious, working on your business, or just kicking up your heels and reading a book over some tea.