How eco-friendly is the growing e-commerce marketplace?
Purchasing local at brick-and-mortar stores or directly on farms is vital to rural communities. Reports have come out in the last decade indicating that this type of commerce, although great for the local economy, may not be so for global climate change. Local travel seems less eco-friendly than having delivery vehicles delivering packages to multiple doorsteps. But, studies in the last few years indicate that the analysis is fuzzy and a clear-cut eco-winner isn't easily determined. Individual shopping habits can vary depending on the item to be purchased. Studies suggest that traveling to your Main Street can at times reduce the carbon impact compared to online purchasing.
Covid increased e-commerce, but even in 2019, 45% of retail sales were e-sales. Online shopping was with us before the pandemic. So, how are the climate impacts of commerce changing from a Main Street, Mall, or Big Box in-person shopping to online?
At first blush, e-commerce seems eco-friendly, reducing individual driving trips to stores and reducing the need for brick-and-mortar stores with their additional electricity and heating needs. But, even online shopping needs the ordered items delivered. The largest source of CO2 from online shopping comes from "the last mile" of delivery. This "last mile" refers to the final car, van, or truck delivering the ordered item to your home. In big cities, delivery vehicles can increase idling and double parking of vehicles on busy streets. In smaller rural communities, delivery vehicles drive farther to reach all delivery doors.
An MIT 2013 thesis found that even with the sizeable carbon impact of "the last mile" seen in e-commerce deliveries, the reduced individual trip to the mall or Main Street, in some instances, was more eco-friendly. As with any study, the results depended upon initial assumptions, and the devil is in the details. The MIT study used an e-commerce purchasing return rate of 25-30% taken from a 2009 study. Updated information from a 2019 report stated an online clothing-specific return rate of 40%. The return of garments through the mail adds a heavy toll to the carbon impacts of e-commerce. Since the last mile is the most carbon costly, reversing the distance produces more carbon and makes these purchases less eco-friendly. The same report stated a 7% return rate for brick-and-mortar stores. This 10-15% increase in online returns makes a clear eco-friendly winner harder to pindown. It comes down to the specific region, the volume of purchases for a single trip, and the shopping habits of the individuals.
Don't forget reducing the impact of shopping isn't all on the consumer. Although large online retailers and delivery businesses have stated climate goals, they are not transitioning fast enough to reach them. We as consumers need to make out voices heard. A 2020 Scientific American study estimated that electric delivery trucks would reduce the "last mile" delivery CO2 impact by 42%. With such CO2 reductions, we all should let these companies and local governments know the importance of increasing the pace of a clean energy transition. Learn more at PluginAmerica nationally, Clean Energy NH, and regionally at the Monadnock Sustainability Hub.
What to Do
If you are Shopping Online
Don't impulse buy - this will result in more buyers remorse and returns.
Do your research before you purchase - make sure the site is reputable, and you won't be returning a fake.
When ordering clothing, carefully review sizing charts to learn how that retailer or company sizes garments. Take measurements as suggested, and be honest when ordering a size.
Order as many items that can be shipped together. Remember, the more individual trips taken by the delivery truck or your car, the larger the climate impact.
Don't do overnight shipping. Fast shipping has a higher carbon footprint.
If Shopping at a physical Store
Try to go out once for all your shopping needs at multiple stops. This "trip chaining" saves on the impact of last-mile travel. The more you group your trips, the better for the environment.
A 2020 paper reported that local delivery was the most eco-friendly. So, if you need your groceries delivered, don't worry.
Try to walk or bike to shops. If you can't, drive to a centralized location and walk or bike to local retailers. A study of Norway shoppers indicated a much smaller carbon footprint for Main Street shopping due to residents walking or biking to local shops.
Ask yourself ALWAYS when shopping online or at a store - do I need this piece of clothing? If you are unsure - go shopping in your closet. There may very well be outfits you have never put together in there!
I am adding this link to a story brought to my attention by Ecocult. It is a story of a Honduran clothing engineer published by the Guardian in January 2022 but tells the story of the Honduran garment industry tied to 1980s American politics. Read on.