Making e-commerce eco-friendly (or something like it)

Photo of Berkeley recycling / trash cans
Sunny Shen/Senior Staff

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This year we’ll face the holiday shopping season against the unprecedented (at least in this century) backdrop of a pandemic, which will likely trade our usual bustle of crowds in decked out stores for online orders from the safer, socially distanced confines of home. We can see this shift as companies such as Amazon kick off their holiday deals early in anticipation of an increase in online ordering, while surveys indicate fewer people intend on taking advantage of in-person deals on Black Friday.

This reflects our new normal when it comes to the shopping experience; the pandemic has sparked a rise in e-commerce across the board, as stores that had relied solely on their brick-and-mortar presence expanded online, and people turned to online ordering for everything from groceries to health care products. And, while e-commerce may owe its latest success to the threat of COVID-19, in the grand scheme of things these new habits will likely expand the landscape of online shopping long term.

But as we tear into online items shipped, sometimes, from thousands of miles away, we’ll find boxes inside of boxes, with styrofoam or bubble wrap cushioning the sides, and a product that is perhaps wrapped in plastic casing. We have to face that this new normal can easily become a slippery slope away from sustainability. While there is pressure on e-commerce companies to craft environmental approaches to online delivery, it is also important as the consumer to prioritize sustainability over convenience and determine what steps we as individuals can take to make e-commerce a more eco-friendly option.

Some of the largest differences between in-person and online shopping relate to the packaging and the delivery process. By the time items reach the physical store, the biggest packaging questions that the consumers face are,“Will you be needing a bag? Paper or plastic?” In-person shopping culture has already started to tackle issues with sustainability; many areas, including the city of Berkeley, restrict or charge fees for the use of plastic and paper bags to encourage environmentally conscious shopping habits. This gives consumers the power and incentive to make sustainable choices during their in-person shopping experience.

It is harder to build this same culture for online shopping; items need to be packaged individually, and the companies hold a large degree of the power in determining this packaging. We still have some say in the matter — choosing to have items shipped together or selecting shipping options that reduce excess packaging, when possible, can mitigate some of the waste. Outside of that, seeking out companies that use recycled packaging and making a point to recycle can be important steps to making the e-commerce world sustainable.

The customer has greater influence when it comes to the delivery process, where greenhouse gas emissions can be another downfall of online ordering. Until recently, e-commerce was generally viewed as more sustainable with regard to greenhouse gases than shopping at a physical store, as it cut out the individual’s travel emissions. Instead, the delivery service can send a single vehicle to drop off orders to many locations in the same trip.

These pitfalls of online delivery come from our choices as consumers which, on the upside, gives us the power to limit our carbon footprint by switching to more environmentally friendly habits when possible.

However, a study conducted this year by the scientific journal “Environmental Science and Technology” found that this assumption could be misleading because it doesn’t take into account consumer shopping habits in-store versus online. While purchasing a single item online may be better than driving out to purchase that same item, people don’t usually buy just one thing at the store — they’ll try to complete most of their shopping for the foreseeable future in one outing and purchase items in bulk. In contrast, online shoppers tend to make smaller purchases more frequently, meaning more trips by delivery service vehicles overall. Because of this, turning to e-commerce for daily shopping items such as groceries, as people have done during the pandemic, can have a worse impact on the environment.

This tendency to make many small purchases is coupled with other habits of online shopping that have detrimental environmental consequences.  The push for express shipping as well as for speedy delivery in general means that companies don’t have time to aggregate orders from the same area to ship together. As a result, a single vehicle will wind up delivering fewer items per trip, once again meaning more trips overall.

Online orders also have a higher return rate — there’s no guaranteeing your shirt fits quite right when purchasing from an online vendor. This leads to more unsatisfactory purchases, or even buying multiple sizes of the same item with the intent to send a few back. The end result is more trips for the same purchase.

These pitfalls of online delivery come from our choices as consumers which, on the upside, gives us the power to limit our carbon footprint by switching to more environmentally friendly habits when possible. By choosing to do all their online ordering at once, or avoiding express shipping unless absolutely necessary, the sustainable shopper takes a step in the right direction to protect the environment.

If online shopping is on track to become a more permanent and widespread option for day-to-day shopping, then we need to recraft our habits to choose sustainability over convenience, and in the long term, build towards an eco-friendly future of e-commerce.

Contact Danielle Bennett at [email protected].