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Is Online Shopping Bad for the Environment? The Answer Might Surprise You

Online shopping is more eco-friendly than you think, and there are many ways to shop consciously to minimize your environmental shopping impact even further.

Written by
Mirah Alix
Published
October 27, 2021

Many of us would initially assume that online shopping is a worse offender than brick-and-mortar when it comes to waste and carbon emissions. Well, think again.

In this Good Together podcast, Laura and Liza sat down to chat about online shopping and its environmental impact from a shipping, packaging, and brand perspective. Online shopping is more eco-friendly than you might believe, and there are many ways to shop consciously to minimize your environmental shopping impact even further.

Here's everything you should know, from the retail landscape to what you can do to cultivate a more sustainable consumer profile.

The Landscape

In the U.S., online shopping accounts for 517 billion of our shopping dollars, with Amazon owning 40 percent of that space alone.

It's predicted that Americans will spend up to $930 billion dollars via online shopping in 2021 alone. Amazon is a huge part of that: According to the New York Times, consumers spent more than $610 billion during a 12-month period ending in June.

With all that being said, a study conducted by MIT found carbon emissions from online shopping are 36% lower than shopping in person. Even after factoring in returns and packaging! How? All our individual trips to the store actually contribute more carbon emissions than commercial shippers, since orders are consolidated to follow standard delivery routes. Transportation accounts for 65 percent of all emissions from our traditional shopping model.

Still, e-commerce has major downstream implications from packaging waste, supply chains, and the “endless aisle” of competing products. To be a savvy online shopper, Liza and Laura suggest three main things you can consider while browsing the virtual bazaar.

How to Be a Conscious Consumer When Shopping Online

1. Shipping

Although e-commerce has a smaller environmental footprint, it’s still a substantial one, and shipping is the main generator of the industry’s emissions. Naturally, if you order online, retailers have to find a way to get the product to your doorstep.

What you can do is minimize the chance that they’ll have to make multiple delivery attempts. Just one additional attempt can increase carbon emissions up to 75 percent from that order. Liza suggests signing up for shipping notifications via text message. The majority of distributors (Shopify, FedEx, USPS, UPS, etc.) will offer this when you’re e-mailed the delivery tracking number.

Next, make sure to combine your orders instead of buying products individually. With free shipping memberships and our busy lives, it’s easy to make more purchases than we need. What we can try to do is shop less frequently and ensure you’re maximizing the potential of each order. Break out your old pen and paper to write a weekly list instead of clicking “check out” impulsively throughout the day. Another Amazon tip for repeat customers: You can pre-select a shipment day so that your orders are combined.

Finally, let’s not forget about returns. One of the caveats of online shopping, especially for clothes or shoes, is that you can’t be sure it will be the right fit. While that’s understandable, what you can try to avoid is ordering multiple sizes in different shipments, with the intention of returning at least one. Another alternative to shipping a return is gifting, selling, or consigning to a place like ThredUP, Relove, or Poshmark.

2. Packaging

Ah, yes—the beautiful brown box on your doorstep is a gift from yourself and a joy to open. The less exciting part is disposing of all the packaging contributed by online shopping. Of course, most paper packaging materials are recyclable, and no matter where you are… there’s a place to recycle. For the interior packaging, though, there are other options. Bubble wrap, air pockets, and the like can be reused for sending gifts or your next move.

Want to do more? Try shopping from companies with conscious packaging or encourage your favorite brands to make a change. The Sustainable Package Coalition is a great place to start your research. 

In your day-to-day life, try to eliminate single-use plastics. The most common offenders are our beauty and household cleaning products. Companies like Olay and Beauty Counter are starting to offer refillable skincare containers in a subscription shipment. Brands like by Humankind, Blueland, and Grove Collaborative are trying to help your house more eco-friendly with concentrated cleaning tablets and bar soaps that don’t require single-use bottles.

3. Buy from Brands That Make a Difference

In general, the retail industry is built to reinforce unsustainable consumption habits. We're constantly encouraged to buy more things, spend more money, and subscribe to more monthly shipments. The first thing you can do is “apply Marie Kondo to your shopping habits” and only buy what you need, will use, and cherish in your life.

With this slower-shopping mindset, you might start to consider brands that are making a conscious effort to improve working conditions or manufacture with recycled materials. Brightly is here to help you, but you can always start by filtering for B-Corp or Fair Trade certified brands.

Ultimately, your shopping habits contribute to a global retail industry that impacts the working conditions of millions, our planet’s health, and even our trade laws. This fact doesn’t have to be overwhelming if you know what you can do to customize your individual impact and decide how you want to play in the market.

Hopefully, you’re feeling a bit more equipped to make those decisions the next time you add to cart.