The carbon footprint of online shopping – and how to bring it down

April 10, 2020


In the past few decades, our shopping habits have changed dramatically. If we wanted to buy something, for ourselves or for others, we needed to go to the store, within opening hours, and hope they had it in stock.

Today that seems like a distant memory.

Online shops are booming more than ever, and it seems there’s no limit to what you can get delivered. Fancy a pillow-tie? And that trend is only on the rise. Within the next decade, demand for urban last-mile delivery (from warehouse to consumer) is expected to grow 78% by 2030. This would mean a significant increase in delivery vehicles around the world.

But one thing that’s not often discussed when it comes to online shopping is the environmental footprint of this convenience.

You might think that online shopping has a lower impact than in-store shopping. After all, online stores don’t use electricity and air conditioning or heating, and shoppers don’t have to drive to get there.

Both online shopping and traditional in-store shopping have a carbon footprint. How eco-friendly your shopping is, depends on several factors, including:

  • The distance the product had to travel
  • How it travelled (flight, cargo ships, trucks, vans)
  • What type of fuel was used (Electric, gas, jet fuel, hydrogen … )
  • The servers that store the webshop
  • If it’s rural or urban delivery (and the number of additional drop-offs)
  • The rate of product returns, and
  • What type of packaging it comes in

… just to name a few.

Many of the biggest carbon sinners are something we don’t think about at all.

Take returns, for instance. Easy return policies make online shopping a lot easier.

But every time a customer returns an item, the carbon footprint of the product goes up. A study in Germany showed that as many as 12% of online purchases are returned. That's one in every 8 purchases!

Returning the product doubles the product's carbon emissions regarding transportation, but there's often an even higher environmental consequence.

The clothing industry has high return rates, understandably. It's seldom we have the same measurements as the person modelling the garment.

With flexible return policies, online shoppers can try things on in their homes and decide if that's the look for them. To attract customers, many companies offer free returns and a streamlined process. Some even urge the shopper to purchase the same clothing item in different sizes and colours to make sure the fit is right. Some offer a money-back or vouchers if the shopper is unhappy with it.

No time for returns

However, when clothes are returned, it’s not as simple as putting it back on the shelves, ready for the next shopper, like you would in a physical store. The clothes are not always cleaned and resold because many companies find it cheaper to throw out return items than to pay someone to sort through the returns and check them for damages, odours, spots, or other.

That means the returned clothes, which might be in perfect condition, end up in landfills or are burnt.

What a waste!

And it’s not just cardigans and pants.

If you order a new pair of sneakers but realize they’re not the right size, and send them back, chances are those shoes are going to landfills. The reason is that once the company gets the shoe back with the open box, the filler paper is taken out, and the laces untied, the value of the product is decreased.

Many companies don’t prioritize the technology, workforce, or storage space to go through return items, check them, clean them, tie the laces, store them, reenter them into the sales catalogue, and resell them.

It becomes cheaper to get rid of it.

In 2018, Burberry admitted to having incinerated £90 million worth of clothing and accessories in the previous five years.

It’s estimated that 5 billion pounds of waste are generated through returns each year, contributing 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere – and that’s in the United States alone!

What goes up must go down: Lowering emissions of online shopping

Luckily, this problem is known, and many independent stores, like Organic basics, and TISE basics are making sure to account for their shipping emissions. Several large shipping companies are investing in fleets of electric delivery trucks, bringing down their emissions.

While a report from McKinsey & Company suggests that delivery emissions and congestions could be reduced by 30% between now and 2030, where both public and private players work together effectively to cut reductions related to online shopping, more is needed.

As consumers, we can support such initiatives by choosing companies who take responsibility for their emissions, and who take care to go through their returns and resell them.

And maybe give it an extra think before we get that new pair of pants.