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Climate Change and The Impact of Ecommerce on the Environment

environmental impact of online shopping

The benefits of ecommerce for both consumers and businesses are indisputable, but so is the environmental impact of online shopping.

Consumers enjoy convenience, competitive prices, and a broader selection of products, while businesses gain access to a global customer base, the potential for high ROI, and the ease of expanding operations to meet demand.

Not to mention, online shopping helped us through the worst of the pandemic—contactless delivery and virtual shopping experiences allowed communities to stay safe while still being able to purchase essential goods and products.

While these advantages are all nice to have, it’s important not to overlook one crucial question: what is the environmental impact of the ecommerce business model?

To answer this question, let’s explore

  1. the environmental impact of online shopping,
  2. how consumers can shop more sustainably,
  3. and what steps we can all take to make ecommerce more sustainable.

Recent Growth of Ecommerce

The pandemic has accelerated the already rapid rise of ecommerce, with sales growing by 27.6 percent from 2019 to 2020 alone. In 2021, ecommerce represented an estimated 14.2 percent of total U.S. retail sales. What’s more, with restrictions lifting and shoppers continuing to shift their habits, experts project this number to grow to nearly 22 percent by 2025.

Encouragingly, the modern consumer is well aware of the environmental impact of this sudden growth. A recent IBM study found that a majority of consumers are willing to adjust their shopping habits to reduce their environmental impact.

On top of that, with nearly 67 percent of consumers and 75 percent of millennials considering sustainability before making a purchase, there’s never been a better time for ecommerce businesses to embrace this growing consumer sentiment and take steps to reduce their environmental impact.

Explore the world of sustainable ecommerce and learn how you can make a difference today.

environmental impact of online shopping

Environmental Impact of Online Shopping: How Does Ecommerce Affect Climate Change?

The entire supply chain, encompassing traditional retail and ecommerce, is responsible for half of global emissions, according to U.N. estimates. This is a staggering realization, especially considering that the U.S. alone ships 165 billion packages each year.

That’s retail in general, but what about ecommerce specifically?

Here are the ways in which ecommerce contributes to climate change:

  1. Urban last-mile delivery alone is expected to grow 78 percent by 2030, leading to 36 percent more delivery vehicles in 100 cities worldwide, increasing GHGs and traffic congestion.
  2. Building new ecommerce infrastructure, like warehousing, drives carbon emissions in the range of 1-1.5 tons per square meter, with 1 million square meters of fulfillment centers required for $6 billion of revenue.
  3. The transportation and logistics sector in the U.S. is responsible for the largest share of carbon dioxide emissions. Ecommerce freight transportation is set to increase from 19 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year to 25 by 2030.
  4. Three billion trees are required to make a year’s worth of paper-based packaging. To put that into perspective, that’s approximately 166,000x the number of trees in Central Parks.
  5. Returned items make up at least 30 percent of all products ordered online and contribute 25 percent of ecommerce’s annual GHG emissions.

How To Shop More Sustainably Online

Okay, it’s pretty clear that the convenience of ecommerce comes with an environmental cost. But thankfully there are ways online shoppers can reduce their carbon footprint while still enjoying the benefits.

Here’s how to shop more sustainably online.

Look For Eco-Friendly Stores

Selecting eco-friendly stores has a notable impact. Such stores use eco-friendly materials, sustainable packaging, and shipping methods. Just be mindful of potential greenwashing and ensure stores provide evidence for their eco-friendly claims. Diligent research helps to avoid deception and genuinely supports sustainable stores.

But that’s not all you can do to shop more sustainably. Why not also try sourcing used, reused, or upcycled goods instead of brand-new ones? These options can be found as good as new and are often cheaper than purchasing new products.

Join the movement towards a more sustainable future by exploring our list of eco-friendly places to shop.

Opt for Slower Shipping Methods

The convenience of next-day or two-day shipping is hard to beat. But, with the average gasoline-fueled vehicle emitting 8,887 grams of CO2 per gallon, expedited shipping methods often lead to increased emissions—the need for speed often results in less efficient route planning and more frequent deliveries.

To reduce the carbon footprint associated with online shopping, consumers can choose slower shipping methods, which not only help to reduce the number of trips made by delivery vehicles but also give retailers the ability to consolidate orders and plan more efficient routes. This leads to fewer emissions and a reduction in local air pollution, all while ensuring customer orders arrive safely and sustainably.

Discover how to reduce the carbon footprint with our guide to eco-friendly delivery options.

environmental impact of online shopping

How Ecommerce Can Improve Sustainability

Ecommerce, being a relatively new industry, presents a unique opportunity to prioritize sustainability and reduce our carbon footprint in a way that differs from many traditional brick-and-mortar retail practices.

Let’s take a look at how we can go about this.

Switch To Renewable Energy

The energy sources used by data centers and warehouses are a major contributor to the global emissions crisis, and it’s time for ecommerce businesses to take action. Companies can dramatically reduce their carbon emissions and build a more sustainable future for us all by sourcing their power from renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydropower.

But that’s not all that can be done.

Ecommerce businesses can also implement energy-efficient practices, such as using LED lighting, energy-efficient equipment, and electric-powered vehicles for transporting goods. These small changes might not seem like much, but they can add up to significant energy savings and make a significant impact on the environment.

Use Sustainable Inventory Management Practices

With supply chains accounting for up to 90 percent of a company’s carbon footprint, it’s more important than ever to ensure that these practices are sustainable and environmentally friendly.

This is where sustainable inventory management practices are not only crucial for any ecommerce business, but they can also play a pivotal role in reducing the industry’s carbon footprint. As evidence of this, it has been shown that doubling the average number of items purchased per ecommerce transaction and eliminating split shipments would not only reduce per-item emissions by 30 percent but also cut shipping costs by more than 50 percent.

This demonstrates how optimizing delivery routes, and consolidating shipments can significantly improve the fuel efficiency of delivery vans by shortening their driving range, resulting in reduced emissions and lower local air pollution levels while also slashing operation costs.

Be Smart About Packaging

With the growing number of deliveries arriving in cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and other packaging materials, it’s no surprise that online shopping leads to more waste. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the majority of packaging waste came from shipping boxes, accounting for 33.3 million tons, of which 940,000 tons ended up in landfills.

This has raised an alarm, particularly with younger generations, who are more likely to choose products based on their sustainability credentials. A report by Global Buying Green revealed that a large majority of younger consumers (<45 years old) are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, with 86 percent expressing this sentiment. The report also found that 68 percent of consumers have made a purchasing decision in the past six months based on a product’s sustainability credentials.

All this to say, whether you’re a business owner or consumer, embrace sustainable packaging solutions, like compostable poly mailers and biodegradable packaging tape—the planet will thank you for it.

Discover the latest trends and best practices for sustainability in ecommerce, and join the movement towards a greener future.

Offer Carbon-Neutral Shipping At Checkout

Another effective way to make a difference is by offering carbon-neutral shipping at checkout, allowing customers to offset the environmental impact of their purchases.

That’s where EcoCart comes in. Our solution provides a simple and effective way to offset the carbon emissions generated by shipping. With EcoCart’s Shopify app and upcoming API release, businesses will demonstrate their commitment to sustainability while giving customers the chance to shop more responsibly.

Join us today in building a more sustainable future—request a demo today.

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Case Studies

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United Nations Sustainable Development Goals