Online shopping is more important to daily life than ever before. Millions of people have become accustomed to buying home necessities with just a few clicks of a button, and have even transitioned to purchasing their meals on the web, too. Yet, in-person shopping is still going strong, as both these habits fuel the growing consumer culture.
No matter what you’re buying, every purchase costs more than money. From shipping, to packaging, to returns, every item you buy affects environmental health to some extent with carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Fortunately, you can minimize your shopping impacts with just a few easy adjustments.
A quick assessment will reveal where you spend your money in-store and online, and every bit that you contribute to the shopping industry’s CO2 emissions.
Start by evaluating your current shopping habits and their climate effects. Once you understand how your shopping affects the world’s ecosystems, you’re ready to calculate your carbon footprint and start mitigating your spending and shopping habit’s impact right away.
Is Shopping Online Better or Worse for the Planet?
Why do you shop online? When many people think about this, one of the first perks may be convenience. You can get whatever you need with just a few clicks, without ever leaving your home.
However, there’s another advantage that benefits more than you, alone – eliminating the need for consumer travel. Every year, household trips to the grocery store release more than 17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution from about three million cars in the US.1 Reducing trips to the store could do wonders for the planet.
Note that this specifically refers to consumer travel. Although you might not have to visit a physical storefront, your item and its materials must come from somewhere. Many things you buy online will likely ship from another country. These CO2 emissions are higher, since the products have to travel longer distances, and use more carbon-intensive methods such as planes. In fact, a recent report estimated that deliveries’ emissions will likely rise by one-third, and add to traffic congestion by 11 minutes per commuter.2
Still, a similar reason why some folks choose to shop online is to save money on gas. By reducing your travel needs, you lower the number of times you refuel throughout the week, freeing up funds for other items or activities.
For example, Business Insider advised readers to switch to buying groceries online to save money.3 The article’s writer, Chelsee Lowe, based this suggestion on their success of “[freeing] up about $640 in extra productivity” monthly.
Online shopping is certainly a reliable way to strengthen your budget, but at what cost? While online shopping certainly has its perks for the individual carbon footprint, it may not be the best option on a global scale.
The Impact of Online Shopping Worldwide
The World Economic Forum (WEF) cites a “growing consumer appetite for convenience” circulating throughout consumer culture as the driving force behind the exponential rise in online shopping. Not only that, but more people have grown accustomed to lightning-fast shipping speeds – ordering their item one moment and receiving the very next day, in some cases.
Experts predict that there will be a 36% increase in the number of e-commerce delivery vehicles on city roads worldwide to satiate this growing demand. Of course, this means transportation emissions will skyrocket.2
In just ten years, the WEF projects that emissions from “last-mile delivery,” a term referring to the last stretch of the shipping journey, will rise by 30% in 100 cities worldwide. This will trigger a domino effect, extending commuter travel times by 21% and raising emissions by 6 million tonnes (Mt), or 6.6 million tons, by 2030.2
Same-day or instant delivery options are growing more common right alongside the booming demand for last-mile delivery. These two services are projected to rise by 36% and 17% by 2030, respectively.2
Despite the potential environmental harm associated with online shopping, it’s understandable that so many people see this as the sustainable alternative to in-person shopping. For instance, many experts have asserted that “greening” online shopping experiences is possible. Combining an eco-friendly shipping overhaul with reduced consumer traffic could be an excellent path toward sustainability.
Unfortunately, it will be a while until the current international and domestic shipping systems are renovated to be more environmentally friendly. In the meantime, it’s best to be wise about your in-person shopping habits, too.
Does In-Store Shopping Hurt the Environment?
Certain shopping experiences are simply better in person. For instance, many people prefer to buy physical books instead of eBooks. So, going to a bookstore can be a treat since you can see and touch all the printed books in person. (Only if you have hand sanitizer.)
Plus, many people refuse to shop for clothes online. It can be risky to purchase clothes online based on charts designed from body type generalizations. Without trying something on, it’s hard to know what a clothing item will look like on you. Instead, most find it better to go to the store in person, to make sure your new threads fit nicely.
At the same time, store visits typically require a vehicle, which means you’ll emit some greenhouse gasses (GHGs) on your way. Additionally, you must consider the store’s supply chain, delivery methods, and many other elements of the production and distribution processes, to determine whether it’s really better for the planet.
Studies on this issue are conflicting. On one hand, the GHG footprint associated with online clothing shopping could be lower than the costs of a physical store. However, the 20-30% return rate might make in-person shopping the better option, since these returns add more emissions.4
Others believe that “pure players,” e-commerce retailers that operate entirely without a storefront and offer parcel delivery, have about half of the overall GHG footprint of a brick-and-mortar business. This could be because the online store does not need electricity, air cooling, or other utilities to keep up, and owners or employees do not have to drive to the business every day. In this case, pure players emit 0.9 kg CO2 equivalent (e), while the alternative is responsible for 2.04 kg CO2e.4
Yet, if you consider all the goods that pure players ship, their operations are far more environmentally damaging than physical stores (0.81 vs. 0.24 kg CO2 per item).1
It’s tough to decide whether online or in-person shopping is the best option for you. Much of this is based on your region and shopping preferences, so there’s no single right answer for everyone. In any case, you have plenty of options for reducing your carbon footprint, no matter what you might be buying next. First, you’ll need to calculate it using a carbon footprint calculator, to see how much changing your spending and shopping habits can make a big difference.
Why You Need to Switch to Sustainable Shopping
Consumerism plays a prominent role in modern Western society’s CO2 emissions. Products are constantly “new and improved,” inspiring people to buy goods they wouldn’t have otherwise needed, or even sought out to begin with. Fashion is a major industry that employs such a supply-demand ebb and flow, especially with the advent of “fast fashion.”
Year after year, certain types of clothing become either trendy or obsolete, pushing consumers to buy the hottest designs. It’s not just the shopping end of things that’s problematic. The World Bank cites the industry’s intense proliferation as a key part of the problem, as they “[step] up the pace of design and production.”
Fashion is no longer tied to seasonal changes, allowing consumers to purchase 60% more clothing than they did in 2000. As a result of the excess goods, more clothes are being thrown away than ever before, too. Many are left to waste in landfills, with less than 1% of clothes being recycled into new wearable materials.5 This kind of unsustainable use does not fare well for the environment.
This isn’t exclusive to fashion. This type of consumerism applies to technology, too. A 2017 Greenpeace report showed that manufacturers have used approximately 968 TWh to make smartphones between 2007 and 2017, which, at the time, was nearly enough to power the entire country of India for one year.6
Tech is predicted to be one of the most environmentally devastating retail markets soon. Worldwide, “e-waste” will likely rise to 50 million metric tons or more each year. This is equal to the weight of 25 million cars, each weighing about 2 tons each.6
Electronics production is an energy-intensive process. The manufacturing phase of a phone’s life accounts for a whopping 73% of its carbon dioxide emissions, followed by its use stage (19%), distribution (6%), and end of life (2%).6
With all this said, to be environmentally-conscious, you should be mindful of what brands you buy from. A company’s production and distribution practices should be as eco-friendly as possible. For example, Greenpeace reports that Apple has committed to working toward 100% “renewably powered” manufacturing. It also helps to choose eco-friendly products, which last longer and use less power.
- Hewlett-Packard (HP)
- Alternative Apparel
- Organic Basics
- H&M Conscious
Generally, no matter what you’re shopping for, the best thing you can do is order from a local store, if you must shop online. Local deliveries are estimated to emit half as much CO2 per item than online-only stores that use distribution centers.
On average, local deliveries release 0.07 kg CO2 per item instead of 0.18 kg CO2 for online stores. In-person shopping generates 0.1 kg CO2 per item.9
To shrink your shopping footprint even more, you can try any or all of these green shopper tips:
- Use public transportation for in-person shopping trips
- Bundle your items whenever you need to buy online
- When shopping in person, utilize reusable shopping bags
- Reduce the amount of trips to the store by planning ahead, and buying everything you need at once
Shop for the Planet
Shopping isn’t bad, in and of itself. Your purchases stimulate the economy, help keep families fed, and enable you to do fun things like travel and invest in hobbies.
Yet, like everything, shopping has its drawbacks, especially for the environment. Buying from online stores or “pure players” can result in higher carbon dioxide emissions, mainly due to their extensive shipping operations and increased traffic congestion. However, in-store shopping can be damaging, too, due to your car’s emissions during the drive to the store.
In either case, buying local can help minimize your carbon footprint. Your goods won’t need to be shipped far, and local businesses likely source their materials and foods in the region, too. Whenever you need to buy outside your area, make sure the company is eco-conscious to mitigate your emissions even more.
Of course, purchasing any goods will have some sort of carbon cost. The goal for sustainability is to lessen that cost as much as possible… and the good news is that even if you can’t erase your shopping carbon footprint completely by making eco-friendly choices, you can still offset the rest with intentional CO2 sequestering activity, like tree planting through a carbon offset provider. You can also use a carbon footprint calculator to see how exactly your shopping and spending habits influence your environmental impact.
So the next time you go shopping, rest easy knowing you have done all you can to be carbon neutral, helping the planet and the animals that live on it.
Learn More About Your Carbon Footprint:
Household Carbon Calculator or Ecological Footprint Calculator? Here’s How to Pick
Carbon (CO2) Counter for Your Car & Lifestyle Choices
Flight Carbon Calculator: Emissions by Airline, Origin and Destination Airports
Carbon Footprint Calculator for Spending & Shopping Habits
3 Things Missing in EPA’s Carbon Footprint Calculator
EPA Kids Calculator? Try This Eco Footprint Calculator for Children Instead
How Nature.org Can Improve their Carbon Calculator Results
Food Carbon Footprint Calculator: Find Your Diet Emissions & Eat Green
Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Calculator: Review Your Environmental Impact
Terrapass Carbon Calculator Could Be Better: Here’s How in 5 Steps
Tracking Your Ecological Impact with the Earthday.org Footprint Calculator
What is Ecological Footprint vs Carbon Footprint? How to Calculate Both
1United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). What if more people bought groceries online instead of driving to a store? https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/what-if-more-people-bought-groceries-online-instead-driving-store
2Whiting, K. (2020, January 10). Online shopping is polluting the planet – but it’s not too late. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/01/carbon-emissions-online-shopping-solutions/
3Lowe, C. (2019, August 22). We order all of our groceries online, and it saves us more than $750 a month in time and money. Business Insider.
4Allen, J., Piecyk, M., Piotrowska, M., McLeod, F., Cherrett, T., Ghali, K., Nguyen, T., Bektas, T., Bates, O., Friday, A., Wise, S., & Austwick, M. (2018). Understanding the impact of e-Commerce on last-mile light goods vehicle activity in urban areas: The case of London. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, 61, 325-338. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trd.2017.07.020
5The World Bank. (2019, September 23). How much do our wardrobes cost to the environment? https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/09/23/costo-moda-medio-ambiente
6Greenpeace. (2017). From smart to senseless: The global impact of 10 years of smartphones. https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/FINAL-10YearsSmartphones-Report-Design-230217-Digital.pdf
7Morgan, B. (2020, November 9). 10 Most sustainable consumer tech companies. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakemorgan/2020/11/09/10-most-sustainable-consumer-tech-companies/?sh=219a502a49a8
8Cannon, S. (2021, July 27). The 42 best sustainable clothing brands to shop in 2021. New York Post. https://nypost.com/article/best-sustainable-clothing-brands-ethical-fashion/
9Temming, M. (2020, February 26). Ordering from a local store can curb online shopping’s CO₂ emissions. Science News. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/ordering-local-store-curbs-online-shopping-carbon-dioxide-emissions