Should We Shop Online?

This article was first published in the newsletter Towards Sustainability #4, October 2020.

The internet and it’s tools have had a big impact in our daily choices and activities. We don’t need to leave the house anymore to buy milk, lunch, a car, or a new jacket. In 2020 our lifestyles were changed dramatically by COVID-19 and even people who preferred the traditional ways of buying discovered online shopping. There was a jump in the e-commerce sector around the world.

The world has somewhere between 12-24 million online stores today. A great amount of online shoppers are buying clothes with around 62% of all online shopping in the fashion sector. According to Statista, Amazon is far out in the lead in online shopping leaving all other platforms far behind. Almost 80% of people state that they have received advice via social media about a product or service to purchase, according to information from Status Lab. An Oberlo report says that because of Covid-19 42% of the US population bought groceries online in March, 2020 compared to 22% in 2018. Of course 2020 is an exceptional year, but still according every statistic the volume of online shopping is increasing every year. 

Why do we choose online shopping?

We can do it without leaving the bed on a phone or computer. We don’t need to spend time going around the shops looking for items, and we don’t need to visit many stores to choose the best one that fits our expectations. We can compare prices, qualities, and functions, and we can read more information online than on the little labels in the stores. There are no worries about parking, the possibility to read reviews, you can do it anytime of the day or night, receive big discounts, there are no size limitations, and making returns is easy. 

What about the disadvantages of online shopping?

When you buy clothing or shoes online you can’t try things on, feel the comfort or the fabrics. There is a high possibility of needing to return or exchange items. Shipping costs might be high or things might take a long time to be delivered, and sometimes there is no immediate assistance. Very often the item doesn’t meet your expectations, they are just not the same as presented in the picture. When ordering food from restaurants or shops you can’t see if something is ripe or fresh and it’s not easy to return. Online shopping can be a problem for people who have struggles about managing their own economy and there are possible privacy and security issues. Some of those millions of online shops are fake so without cae you can easily lose your bank details and personal information. 

Is online shopping and e-commerce sustainable and ecologically friendly?

Yes and no. It depends on the choices that both sellers and buyers make. You could be buying shoes made in China of non-recyclable materials, in a factory that is run on grey energy and staffed by low paid workers who have no rights, then packed in a couple of plastic bags. They are then shipped by high CO2 emission plane and driven with a big truck to your house which would not make it very sustainable. Many factors including energy consumption, CO2 emissions, manufacturing conditions, packaging, delivery, and website hosting all have an effect on how sustainable or not an online purchase is. Just like any other kind of shop, some are better and some are worse. 

How to make your online shopping experience greener.

Choose environmentally responsible online stores – hosted green, selling sustainable products, having less packaging which is recyclable or biodegradable. Use green carbon neutral delivery methods or those with the least emissions, combine and limit your orders, and avoid returns. Remember that each delivery trip uses energy and produces CO2. Choosing delivery lockers and walking or cycling to them to pick things up is a great idea as well. Only order items you really need and don’t buy useless junk from around the world because it is cheap, choose locally made products when you can as they don’t have a big footprint from shipping.

What can e-commerce retailers do to be more sustainable?

There are many ways they can be sustainable, and I am just sharing a few simple ideas. A big thing is to reduce the amount of packaging and choose reusable, recyclable and biodegradable packaging solutions. Online shops should be hosted green. Local deliveries should eliminate packaging by delivering door to door using green powered delivery services. Stock or produce items that are manufactured sustainably. Avoid greenwash and be transparent about production and advertising. Don’t offer free returns, so the customers choose more carefully, and don’t discard perfectly good returned items which sometimes happens because it is cheaper then preparing them for a new delivery. Be secure and responsible about privacy. Coordinate with customers so that the first delivery attempt is the only one needed. 

These days it is hard to imagine life without online shopping, but sometimes it is nice to walk or cycle to the shop. A reusable bag at the ready, having real contact with your goods, finding that perfect ripe avocado and wishing a good day to the shop assistant.

Shopping can bring some social interaction and healthy exercise as well as just getting the things you want to buy.

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