The Covid pandemic has accelerated the use of digital and online services. Online retail sales have skyrocketed, thanks to the convenience and speed of delivery of the likes of Amazon and Walmart.
But what carbon footprint does online shopping have? And how do online retailers stack up in their environmental impact vs. the traditional brick-and-mortar stores?
In the past, many studies pointed to the carbon efficiencies of large online retailers vs. physical stores. But a 2020 study has reversed this assumption.
As it turns out, large online retailers leave a much larger carbon footprint than if you were to order your products from a local store. The reason is that buying and shipping single items take up a lot of packaging and shipping. And fast shipping and speedy returns add to the already heavy load of transporting the goods long distance.
According to IBM’s annual U.S. retail index, the Covid crisis accelerated online shopping to levels that were not expected before 2025.
“Today, online shopping comprises about one out of every six purchases in the U.S. and is unlikely to slow down anytime soon,” noted Brian Matthews, corporate sustainability advisor at South Pole, a sustainability consulting firm. “Free shipping and convenience are driving customer growth, but are taking a heavy toll on our planet and health.”
The 2020 study was conducted by researchers in the Netherlands, Sweden, and the U.K, and was published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal. The authors analyzed various factors such as upstream transport, storage, packaging, and last-mile transport.
The conclusion was that “pure players”, i.e. online giants, had the largest total carbon footprint. Those online businesses had the largest upstream transport, last-mile packaging, and last-mile transport in comparison to the brick-and-mortar stores.
Local stores that provided online shopping and delivery, called “bricks-and-clicks” had the lowest last-mile transport carbon footprint, as these stores usually deliver locally. People also purchased the largest “basket size” at the brick-and-click stores, which resulted in more sustainable shopping. Brick-and-mortar stores had the second-largest basket size, while online pure players had the smallest.
Online pure players also had several additional factors that contributed to higher GHG emissions vs. the other categories: stem and drop mileage, failed deliveries, and deliveries per tour.
The data differed depending on the countries analyzed – U.S., U.K, Netherlands, and China – due to distinct shopping cultures.
Despite the gloomy statistics for large online retailers, all is not lost as consumers hold the final word in how sustainably they want to shop.
According to a study by IBM Institute for Business Value, 93 percent of global consumers said that Covid-19 influenced their views on sustainability. Two out of three global respondents said that environmental issues are significantly important to them personally.
“When forced to make a trade-off between affordability and sustainability, consumers have historically prioritized their pocketbooks,” noted the survey. “But this mindset is shifting. IBV research conducted in 2019 revealed that 57 percent of global consumers were willing to pay more for recycled products and the use of recycled materials in packaging and/or product manufacturing.”
And as of March 2021, IBM said that this trend is on the upswing: now 62 percent of consumers say they’re willing to change their purchasing behavior to lower the impact on the environment, up from 57 percent in 2019.
One way to minimize your e-commerce carbon footprint is to prioritize online shopping from local retailers. This not only limits GHG emissions, but it also helps smaller businesses and communities that source local products.
When shopping online, consumers can also cluster purchases together and choose slower shipping options. On their part, online giants have already started decarbonizing their businesses by replacing their energy consumption with renewables, using recyclable packaging, and buying carbon offsets.
“Freight transportation emissions are expected to grow by 225 percent by 2050,” noted South Pole’s Matthews. “Today, it is more important than ever that shipping companies ensure products take the most eco-friendly routes, and once ensured, the next step is to cover unavoidable emissions associated with the deliveries.”