What if online shopping isn’t more eco-friendly?

Feb 11, 2016
Tom Ryan

A new study casts some doubt on the environmental benefits of online shopping.

The study from the Delaware Center for Transportation (DCT) found the extra trucks needed to support e-commerce place more wear-and-tear on pavement and increase pollution from diesel emissions. With residential and downtown streets not designed to accommodate frequent truck stops, parking, loading and unloading, trucks can also cause delays and compromise safety.

The biggest surprise is that the number of vehicles on the road aren’t decreasing despite the fact that customers don’t need to visit stores as much. Arde Faghri, a professor and director of DCT, said in a statement, “This suggests that people are using the time they save by shopping on the Internet to do other things like eating out at restaurants, going to the movies, or visiting friends.”

Researchers cautioned that the study only looked at online shopping’s impact on residential commerce and focused on the city of Newark, DE.

While not outright disproving the theory, the findings challenge assumptions that online shopping is more eco-friendly.

Several past studies have found a sizeable benefit to e-commerce when exploring greenhouse gas emissions simply because buying online reduces individual car trips to the store. The e-commerce infrastructure is also believed to require less space and energy (lights, air conditioning, etc.). Besides issues around trucks, the knock on online shopping is that it increases packaging waste. Any required airfreight would also be negative environmentally.

Whether it matters to online shoppers is a bit unclear with few studies exploring consumer views.

A 2009 Shop.org survey from BIGresearch found that 35 percent of respondents believed online shopping was better for the environment than store shopping, 31.2 percent didn’t think so, and 33.8 percent didn’t know. Of those believing online shopping was environmentally better, 60 percent would shop online more as part of a greener lifestyle. A survey by BIGresearch the following year found that almost half of 18- to 24-year-olds believed it was more environmentally friendly to shop online.

Photo: RetailWire

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think online shopping is better for the environment than shopping in physical stores? How important is it for e-tailers to show consumers that they are working to lessen their environmental impact?

"At this point, the questions far outnumber answers. And one of the biggest questions is: do consumers care enough to modify their behavior in ways that will make an ecological impact?"
"Seriously, how could any thinking person conclude that individual home deliveries are somehow greener than consolidated shipments to stores?"

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13 Comments on "What if online shopping isn’t more eco-friendly?"

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Adrian Weidmann

I look forward to Paula or Nicki from RSR to comment as one of their recent surveys found that sustainability was a significant issue on the minds of shoppers. There seems to be an opportunity for brands and retailers alike to address this subject in order to resonate with their shoppers.

Social consciousness is a powerful attribute for Generation Z. Brands that align themselves with a cause to change and heal the world in a meaningful and real manner (not a PR stunt!) will capture the hearts and wallets of this shopping generation for years to come.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

The primary metrics of this study were focused on the ecological impact as measured in terms of “trips.” There are many other potential other factors that have ecological impacts as well.

The article mentions one of them — freight and distribution of the goods to the end consumer. Is it more ecologically friendly to ship direct from e-commerce distribution centers or from DCs to stores near consumers? Is it more cost effective to store products in a warehouse center with economies of scale or display inventory in stores, but with the added ecological burden of furnishings, additional lighting and air conditioning required for consumer comfort and appeal?

There are many more factors and metrics to consider in measuring the ecological impacts of online versus stores. At this point, the questions far outnumber answers.

And one of the biggest questions is: do consumers care enough to modify their behavior in ways that will make an ecological impact?

Max Goldberg

For most online shoppers this is a non-issue. Unless online shopping proves to have significant negative impact on the environment, I expect it will continue to grow at a healthy pace.

Zel Bianco

It seems clear that e-tailers could benefit by lessening their environmental impact and making sure shoppers knew that doing business with them would be better for the environment. However, the data discussed in the article shows that it is currently an even split between people thinking that e-commerce is good, bad or indifferent to the environment. And the study mentioned does not address so many factors of sustainability or e-commerce. Let’s get some more data and better studies — then we can take action.

Karen McNeely

It never would have occurred to me that online shopping would be considered more environmentally friendly than brick-and-mortar stores. The product is still transported from the manufacturer to the retailer’s warehouse and then rather than being transported in bulk to regional locations it is sent one box at a time. Add to this the additional packing material required and the fact that UPS and FedEx residential routes aren’t among the most efficient (I’ve seen multiple UPS trucks on my street in a single day) and my assumption is that they are far less friendly to the environment. Convenience has always been the name of the game and convenience is rarely a partner with efficiency.

David Livingston
1 year 7 months ago

Wow, I have no idea if online shopping is better for the environment. Our population is growing and since we are people we will keep producing waste, garbage, sewage and pollution. We know it cannot be reduced but only slowed. It’s only important to consumers if retailers of any kind can show consumers they are personally benefiting when the environmental impact is lessened. Like email, I prefer paperless billing so I don’t need to think about getting so much mail to put in the trash.

Tom Redd

A report from Delaware? The BLINK State. If you’re driving the East Coast and you blink, you have just passed through all of Delaware. Looks like they are dying for some attention. My read — OK, one truck delivers to 50 homes vs. 50 homes having shoppers out driving to look for products. Someone do the math. Using efficient delivery trucks, which is what UPS, FedEx and others do, does not impact the ecosystem. The Generation Z tree huggers are going to have to go find some other issue to whine about.

OK, I am not that nice about some topics — but I am tired of eco freaks that have their nature topics. Out here in the West, we lose forests due to these groups protesting forest overgrowth maintenance. They are silent when the fire starts but complain all winter that we should leave the forests alone.

James Tenser

Seriously, how could any thinking person conclude that individual home deliveries are somehow greener than consolidated shipments to stores? More packing materials, more road miles, more exhaust fumes. Less logistical efficiency and more business complexity.

At the same time I suspect online shopping instances have not replaced an equal proportion of store visits. It has only shifted their purpose somewhat, so our citizens still drive their cars about as often.

There’s little doubt in my mind that online shopping and home delivery adds a burden on the environment.

Rick Moss

A little common sense from e-tailers would go a long way toward better eco-practices. Recently, I received a bundle of paper towels from Jet.com. It was in a box the size of a small refrigerator about twice the size of the product. The extra space was stuffed with enough bubble wrap to safeguard a 27″ TV.

While I appreciate their efforts to safeguard my paper towels against denting, I couldn’t help think there must be a smarter way not to mention that it took me fifteen minutes to break down and bundle all the packaging for recycling. People-energy waste is a real thing too, you know.

Roger Saunders

Consumers have a greater focus for online shopping based on convenience, potential cost-savings (low prices or free shipping), flexible returns policy, omnichannel (pick-up at store), customer service (someone to communicate with, if needed), and ease of use of their website.

Consumers have become increasingly aware of their environment. Limited need to mix the concept of the environment with online, unless the Green Movement is a core strategic move in the retail operating plan deck.

Craig Sundstrom

As with any complex situation involving hundreds of millions of people (each) making dozens of decisions — in short, the “internet of everything” — there’s a lot of room for studies which pick out whatever elements they want to reach a preconceived conclusion. Was this one of them? Well….

I would have to agree with the packaging waste problem though, at least at the individual level.

Mike Anthony
Mike Anthony
1 year 7 months ago

It seems disingenuous to discredit online shopping’s environmental criteria because shoppers choose to use the time they have saved to go out to other places. That is about consumers not being environmentally conscious, rather than online shopping. It’s like saying that an eco-friendly lightbulb is only eco-friendly if the household spends its savings in an eco-friendly manner.

Counting the cost of the eco-damage of the trucks is one thing, but what people do with their time can hardly be laid down as a “cost” of online retailers.

Matt Talbot

I think online shopping is worse for the environment than shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. Although there are many benefits to shopping at a physical location, one of them is certainly less detriment to the environment. For example, when shopping at a store, you have the option to decline a bag, or packaging. Online shopping offers no such option. Often I find that my orders online are over-packaged and I feel guilty about the amount of material used to ship (what is often) a small item.

While I do think that online shopping decreases the number of people who drive to stores, I think the article makes a very good point — that the people who are not driving to stores are probably driving elsewhere. To that end, fast shipping also takes a significant toll on the environment when compared to regular/economy shipping.

I do not think many consumers are aware of the impact online shopping has on the environment. However, many consumers want to know the impact a product — and the related company — has on the environment and that, in general, should be more publicized.

"At this point, the questions far outnumber answers. And one of the biggest questions is: do consumers care enough to modify their behavior in ways that will make an ecological impact?"
"Seriously, how could any thinking person conclude that individual home deliveries are somehow greener than consolidated shipments to stores?"

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