Is It More Eco-Friendly to Shop Online or in-Store?
By Jane Marsh
On the question of shopping online vs in-store, you may wonder which way is truly more sustainable. E-commerce was booming well before global lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the U.S. Census Bureau recently found that online sales increased by 43% in 2020 — up from $571.2 billion in 2019 to $815.4 billion.
Nearly two years later, our collective shopping habits remain altered even as businesses have reopened. The National Retail Federation (NRF) projects an estimated 11%-13% growth in online U.S. consumer sales, ranging between $1.17 trillion to $1.19 trillion in 2022. Meanwhile, electronic, grocery and apparel sales continue to lead as the most popular online shopping categories.
Shopping online or at brick-and-mortar stores both have pros and cons concerning eco-friendliness. If you’re wondering about the most ethical way to make a purchase, you should consider a few variables.
Figure that the average car emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, depending on the vehicle manufacturer, model and year.
However, when it comes to shipping, the transportation sector is a primary culprit of greenhouse gases. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, transportation totaled 20% of U.S. emissions in 2020.
Goods get distributed by cars, trucks, freight trains, marine vessels, planes and other means of transport. Throughout the supply chain, the item you’ve purchased — online or at a store — has made its way to several distribution centers and warehouses by the time it ends up in your closet.
Combining your shopping excursions with other errands is one way you may be able to lower your carbon footprint. Other possibilities are finding alternative transportation methods with fewer or no emissions, such as walking, biking or public transportation.
Eco-friendly shopping may also require you to create smarter e-commerce habits. Combine items in your online cart and make a wish list to buy what you need at once rather than multiple purchases.
Consumers are worried about the influx of e-commerce packaging waste due to increasing urgency over pollution and climate change. Approximately 43% of Americans consider the environmental impacts associated with packaging before buying something.
Many packaging materials are not recyclable and end up in landfills or the ocean. Since the pandemic, scientists worry the current estimate of four to 12 tons of plastic pollution entering oceans will increase exponentially.
Additionally, landfills emit harmful levels of carbon dioxide and methane — of which the latter is 28-36 times more powerful at trapping heat and driving climate change.
E-commerce is rising, and shipping and transportation demand sustainable packaging alternatives. For example, packing materials made with natural fibers are biodegradable and recyclable curbside — a much greener option for the eco-conscious consumer. However, more companies must get on board and actually use these products when shipping items.
Of course, in-store shopping cuts back on packaging waste. For starters, you don’t need to pack items in a cardboard box or plastic bag. Simply bring reusable bags from home instead.
The NRF reported about $428 billion in merchandise returns in 2020 — but there is a key difference between the eco-friendliness of in-store and online returns.
Emissions and packaging materials are undoubtedly harmful to the environment no matter where you bought something. However, that pair of jeans you purchased from Amazon in the wrong size is far more problematic than it would be if purchased in the store.
Returns account for one-quarter of the e-commerce industry’s 45% of total packaging emissions. Unlike online shopping, you can measure the quality, size and color of a product by trying it on at a store first.
It should be no surprise that in-store returns occur 5%-10% of the time and rise to 15%-40% for online purchases. Unfortunately, online returns do more than simply increase transportation emissions and packaging waste.
Depending on an item’s condition, retailers toss over 25% of returns, equating to over 5 billion pounds. In a few years, the amount could increase to 10 billion pounds.
In-store shopping may sound greener than shopping online, but there are still plenty of environmental drawbacks. For one thing, you have to drive to a store, which produces many emissions. Consumers also find e-commerce far more convenient for great deals and free returns.
If you’re unsure what size you need or can combine your errands into one outing, in-store shopping may be more eco-friendly. Otherwise, creating an online wish list, aiming to get your items in one box and purchasing from sustainable brands can make online shopping just as sustainable.
Jane works as the founder and editor-in-chief of Environment.co where she covers environmental news and sustainable living tips.