Eco / Lifestyle

Traditional Shopping v. Online Shopping: The Ecological Impact

Hello, hello, friends! Lately, I’ve felt in the mood to do a research deep dive and get back to educating myself [and, subsequently, you all reading this] on sustainability and ecological mindfulness. One particular subject that I have been very interested in learning more about is the impact of delivery services like Amazon on the environment; is online shopping and delivery better than traditional retail methods of obtaining our groceries and goods? 

I’d be lying if I said Amazon Prime wasn’t an integral part of my life. From dog food to kitchen utensils to Adidas shorts to makeup, Amazon Prime is usually my go-to for purchases — and I’m not alone either. Delivery services like Amazon have fundamentally changed American consumerism in the past few years — so much so that the term the “Amazon Effect” has been coined to characterize the manifestation of widespread e-commerce initiatives and consumption.

I don’t even remember the last time I step foot into the mall; browsing at 4 am in the comfort of my own bed is just hard to beat. And now, with extensions like Amazon Now, if I’m sick I don’t even need to leave the comfort of my home; I can simply have Gatorade, Vitamin C, and soup delivered straight to my door [my mom did this from Georgia when I lived in Arizona and couldn’t get to the store to get cold/flu remedies]. We are in the age of an industrial revolution [okay, but like, the second one] and the way in which we shop is changing drastically. 

So, my question is: how does this impact our move toward being ecologically conscious? Is online sales and retail delivery better or worse for our environmental footprint? How does Amazon contribute to fast fashion, product surplus and oversaturation? Let’s deep dive, friends. 

How Our Products Get to Us

Online Shopping versus Traditional Shopping: The Ecological Impact

Let’s first take a look at how products get to our homes. For almost entirely all of the early retail process, we do not choose where or how our products are manufactured. For products sold in brick-and-mortar stores, they are packaged from their manufacturer, delivered to a warehouse, transferred to intermediate warehouses and then delivered to a store, where they are sold upon shelves to those who choose to shop on foot. Contrastingly, for products destined for online retail, a different journey must take place. 

After arriving to the warehouse, they are shipped for individual repackaging and then are transported to their new home via a light-duty truck. [The Environmental Impact of Online Shopping: Essential Answer]. 

Can you guess which part of the retail process is most harmful for the environment? You’re right — carbon emissions during the delivery process. 

Online Shopping *Should* Be More Eco-Friendly

In theory, online shopping should lead to less carbon emissions. [In Store or Online — What’s the Environmentally Friendliest Way to Shop?] According to Fred Pearce, services like Amazon reduce carbon emissions by delivering several items to several different consumers on one trip. One delivery “round” may cover up to 50 miles, producing around 50 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions which equates to around 6 ounces per delivery. In contrast, if you were to drive to the store yourself for a single item, the average trip is around 13 miles. Those 13 miles equate to over 24 times the amount of carbon emissions by the Amazon delivery, meaning that you’d have to purchase your item plus 23 more to breakeven. Id. 

So Why Isn’t This the Reality? 

There are several different factors that contribute to the dysfunction of this theory. First off, most consumers aren’t going to the store for a single item; most consumers buy in bulk [not a single product, but several products at once]. 

In addition, returns are more frequent than you may assume. According to CNBC, 5 to 10 percent of in-store purchases are returned; that number doubles to 15 to 40 percent for online purchases. [That sweater you don’t like is a trillion-dollar problem for retailers. These companies want to fix it.] For example, Amazon has a hassle-free return policy, meaning that consumers don’t have to pay to ship products back. While the ease of the policy is convenient for consumers [because, trust me, I truly do love their return policy], it is not so easy on the environment. 

For instance, we bought a desk from Amazon not too long ago, actually. The desk arrived promptly, but when Austen went to build it, we discovered the wood snapped in half during transport. I immediately put in a return request, and UPS picked up the package the very next day. This piles on the trips that Amazon takes to and from our homes, and that easy-peasy return policy is to blame. 

Browsing Online v. Browsing On Foot

In addition, browsing online is much more energy efficient and less wasteful than building, powering, lighting, heating and cooling an entire brick-and-mortar store for who knows how long. For example, an average mall consumes a ton of energy. They consume up to 650 kWh per square meter each year; in addition, since most malls were built several years ago [when shopping malls were the “thing”], they were not built with innovation and energy reduction in mind. “Retailers themselves use about 20 percent of the energy consumed by all commercial businesses, and they are the fastest-growing commercial category of energy users, according to the Energy Department.” [Meccas of Shopping Try Hand at Being Misers of Energy

In contrast to shopping malls, though, huge retailers like Walmart are trying to drastically improve their energy consumption. They’ve been painting store roofs white to reflect sunlight and reduce the use of air-conditioning, as well as capturing rain in storage tanks for flushing water and installing LED lights. [Walmart Commits to Reduce Emissions by 50 Million Metric Tons in China] Although the company admits many of these changes were made to keep prices low in-store, it nonetheless positively cuts back on their already monumental carbon footprint. 

An Increase in Consumerism

Many, though, argue there are even more nuanced issues regarding online shopping. We are collectively purchasing more products than ever before. The convenience and ease of our purchases encourages more of them. We buy more because we can have more, not necessarily because we need more. 

In addition, the argument that we are doing online shopping or brick-and-mortar shopping are just simply not accurate; we’re doing both. While driving to the store to grab a sweater, I may have a book delivery on the way from Amazon. While shopping for Christmas gifts at the mall, I may be waiting for more to arrive on my doorstep by the time I come home. This just means there is even more congestion, pollution, and a larger ecological footprint. [The Hidden Environmental Cost of Amazon Prime’s Free, Fast Shipping]. 

Ways We Can Reduce Our Carbon Emissions while Shopping

Bundle Your Deliveries

Did you know that Amazon offers Free Amazon Delivery Days? You can choose a day in which all of your Amazon deliveries come on the same day, that way they can be packaged together [using less packaging] and delivered at once [reducing carbon emissions]. You can choose if Saturday, Sunday, Monday, etc. is the best day for you to receive your deliveries. This is a wonderful way to help mitigate your footprint via online shopping. 

Choose Less Packaging

Amazon’s excessive packaging hugely contributes to the waste created from the industry. Packaging waste congests our cities, releases pollutants into the air and exponentially contributes cardboard to our landfills. [The Hidden Environmental Cost of Amazon Prime’s Free, Fast ShippingIn addition to choosing less packaging [perhaps by bundling orders], please make sure you are appropriately recycling these products. 

Do you really need it? 

I’ll be the first to admit — I buy a ton of things I don’t necessarily need. From study aids to appliances, there are a plethora of products out there that would be nice to have, but not necessary. And that’s the distinction we should all be making! I want to get better at this as well — let’s seriously ask ourselves if we truly need the product before clicking a button and getting it tomorrow. I swear, Amazon is the worst for the impulsive shopper. 


Jade Nicole

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