Delivery outside of a door

Online shopping delivers hidden environmental cost

A recent study shows that online shopping services are a greater contributor to the climate crisis than shopping at physical stores.

The study published in Environmental Science & Technology focused specifically on the part of the retail supply chain called the ‘last mile’ delivery: the distance between a store and a customer, or between the distribution centre and the online shopper.

The researchers analysed the carbon footprint of this stretch for physical stores, “bricks & clicks” (when people order online, and a physical store delivers their items) and “pure players” (online-only sellers) in the UK. 

Analysis showed that total carbon footprints per item were higher from physical stores than from bricks & clicks purchases, but lower than those of pure players in 81% of cases.

Online shopping creates mountains of packaging waste and leads to millions of transport miles every year, but consumers are buying more online than ever, with younger age groups less likely to shop locally than people over 55.

Nearly a third of solid waste in the US comes from e-commerce packaging and last year Amazon released figures that showed it emitted 44.4m tonnes of CO2 annually, nearly as much as a small country. 

The ease of click and buy, free or low-cost delivery – often spread over a series of small purchases – and buying to return part of an order all contribute to the destructive potential of online shopping. Consumer impatience is another factor, with services such as same-day-delivery exponentially increasing carriage and mileage.

“Our rapidly-growing delivery culture is a challenge,” head of transport at the Energy Saving Trust, Tim Anderson, told The Guardian. “It’s easy to go online and buy things cheaply. They might have been shipped from far-off countries, manufactured from raw materials, and they arrive at our homes at little or no cost.” 

Suggestions from researchers and experts to mitigate the impact of growth in online retail include shopping locally, consolidating orders into single deliveries and having things delivered to a collection point to cut delivery mileage. 

Transport studies department researcher at the University of Westminster, Julian Allen, added. “We have the concept of ‘free’ delivery, which is a selling point for retailers, but it’s not really free in the sense of what it costs them and what it costs in environmental terms.”

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