Like every game changer before it, online shopping has proven to be an industry shake up. Amassing $394 billion in total U.S. e-commerce sales in 2016, a just argument can be made for why shopping online plays a crucial role in our quest for sustainability within a green environment. Die-hard proponents of online retail will tell you that e-commerce significantly reduces single plastic bag use with some e-tailors offering combined shipping – consolidating selected items into one package for greater efficiency. They would also cite a reduction in automobile fuel as less cars make their way to brick and mortar stores. For these reasons, online shopping appears to be a greener option when compared to its in-store shopping counterpart.
As early as 2009, many pro-environment organizations touted online shopping as eco-conscious. Supporting arguments mostly surrounded consumer transportation, but also included cost-effectiveness in terms of operating a warehouse or store front. Varying items run the gamut when it comes to protecting them from the elements, so heating and cooling methods need to be considered. This almost always requires electricity. And because consumers drive sales, if a commodity is considered unworthy of their time, the items take up space on shelves or in boxes only later to be shipped to discount stores or worse, landfills.
These reasons almost certainly make for a compelling argument to support the method of online shopping as one that is pro-green. Yet, recent studies have begun to uncover the hidden consequences of online shopping which secretly plagues the green movement.
Online Landscape Exposed
Let’s take a look at the package you just received from your favorite online retailer. Unless the item is especially small, it likely arrived in a box. The warehouse that shipped it must ensure that the package can withstand hard to predict circumstances such as bouncing around, being dropped, or otherwise damaged. Styrofoam, air packaging or any other form of plastic are commonly used when shipping items to protect against these scenarios. Your shipment arrives and even if it is small, it may still contain lots of packaging items for storage protection. In our throwaway culture, the packaging would simply be deduced to letting our kids play with it until they’re bored, then hauling out to the recycle bin. The major problem with this: none of these items are biodegradable. In fact, they erode our landfills, often escaping and ending up in wildlife habitats.
Styrofoam, or polystyrene, is derived from natural gas or petroleum thereby making it a non-renewable source. Though there are options that are recyclable, the product itself takes up a lot of room, increasing the swelling capacity of landfills. Not to mention when broken apart, foraging animals could consume the product and its effects can be fatal.
Air packaging – those seemingly endless rolls of inflated plastic – are devastating for the environment. Not only do they take up space, they last in the environment for many years due to their compositional structure which is nearly impenetrable.
Along with packaging, urban design within residential neighborhoods is an often overlooked component of online shopping’s environmental landscape. Now more than ever, freight trucks make their way through neighborhoods not originally equipped for such transport. This causes problems like increased idling vehicles in small neighborhoods. It also creates an uptick in the frequency of freight trucks within such neighborhoods as on-demand shopping can easily result in multiple deliveries to a single neighborhood in a day.
Can I Still Shop Online While Reducing My Carbon Footprint?
From the convenience of purchasing wanted items to a seemingly endless supply of goods and services readily available at the click of a button, online shopping has truly changed the way consumers obtain and now demand their goods. It is possible to continue with this preferred method, albeit by tweaking the method a bit. But this takes a concerted effort among both retailers and consumers.
Obviously bulk shipping would help aid in reducing carbon emissions. Less freight trucks driving through neighborhoods making multiple deliveries almost certainly cuts down the carbon dioxide stored in the trees surrounding such neighborhoods. This also helps to reduce air pollution within densely populated areas.
Incentivizing purchases with an eco-friendly payoff is one way. When you consider the rise of Toms’ shoes – largely done on a platform of comfort (the shoes) and social awareness (your purchase resulted in a child gaining a pair of shoes), it allowed the company to very succinctly define its mission and generate consumer interest by partaking in the mission too. When retailers create a connectivity to their brands or items, it almost naturally results in increased support and ultimately profit. Consumers have lots of choices. Retailers who differentiate themselves with a desire to contribute to societal issues are more likely to gain a stronghold on brand loyalty. States and federal governments can certainly intervene and incentivize retailers through tax benefits for those who opt to use biodegradable or compostable packaging.
With a wide array of choices at our disposal, consumers really do have a lot of power when it comes to influence. After all, if a fad catches on to mainstream popularity, it almost assuredly guarantees lasting results for a greener future.