This study compared the carbon footprint of the shopping process and found that a shopper doing the search & purchase of a product online tends to have almost half the carbon footprint of one who does the purchase in-store. Another study found that if the number of items is less than 24 items during an in-store shopping trip by car (or less than 7 items for bus users), then home delivery emits less CO2 per item.
The results can change if any of the following is true:
- Speed delivery is used. That is because the supplier no longer has the flexibility to bundle multiple orders into a single delivery, sends out vans less full and travelling further per delivery.
- The online shopper has a short distance to travel to store.
- The online shopper is able to walk, cycle or use public transport to store.
- The online shopper is able to club an in-store purchase during a car trip on route to elsewhere.
- There are failed deliveries. 12-60% of home deliveries have been reported to fail first time. Either a second or even third delivery is required, or customers end up driving to to pick up the product.
Even if the purchase is from an overseas factory, the main component of the in-store purchase's carbon footprint is the customer transportation, while that of the online purchase's carbon footprint is packaging. The carbon footprint of maintaining an online store's website generates significantly less emissions than that of a physical retail store.
Other factors making online shopping less environment friendly could be:
- Products shipped by air freight, even partially.
- Returning items. Typically, one-fifth of products are returned.
- Out-sourced deliveries to independent couriers who use their personal vehicles to deliver parcels, with no optimisation of delivery route and no control over vehicle emissions.
- Individually packed items or additional packaging to prevent damage in transit.
- Engine idling as the driver drops the package.
- Gains in efficiency made during online shopping used to merely stimulate new consumption. The total number of vehicle miles travelled hasn’t decreased at all with the growth of online shopping.
Factors making online shopping more environment friendly could be:
- Electric vehicles for delivery. Their carbon footprint depends on how their electricity is generated.
- Drones for delivery are likely to provide a CO2 benefit when there are fewer recipients and/or located close to the depot.
- Improved crowd logistics, the idea being that parcels and passengers are co-transported along a passenger trip, although the current findings indicate higher environmental impact, when compared to traditional parcel delivery.
- Introduction of reusable packaging. A company called LimeLoop has introduced lightweight, waterproof pouches – made from durable vinyl recycled from billboards – that can be reused as many as 2,000 times. Your order will arrive in a reusable pouch which you empty, flip the label around and put back in the mailbox, so the company can use it again for the next customer. The cardboard used for packaging in the US alone each year equates to more than 1 billion trees, which could be reduced with reusable packaging.
Tips for online and in-store shopping:
- The purchase that doesn’t happen has the lowest delivery carbon footprint of all.
- Ask yourself whether you might be able to get the product from a local shop – one you can reach on foot or bicycle or public transport.
- Combine in store shopping or collection point pick-ups with other activities like your daily commute.
- Use standard delivery rather than express delivery.
- Buy from as few different online traders as possible, and consolidate your orders. Do not spread your purchases across several suppliers just to make small price savings. Similarly, buy multiple items during one in-store shopping trip. This improves the absolute environmental impact, by optimising fuel consumption and the amount of material for packaging.
- Buy goods such as shoes, which have high return rates, in shops only.
- Avoid missed deliveries by agreeing times in advance or specifying a neighbour who can accept the parcel for you.
- Set up buying groups to place collective orders.
- Give preference to delivery services that use returnable crates or recyclable cardboard.
- If an online delivery uses reusable packaging, actually send the packaging back if the infrastructure allows it. In Europe, a company called Repack supplies reusable bags to online retailers. The packaging, designed to flatten easily, can be dropped back in the mail.
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