Over the past several years, online shopping has seen a rise not just in popularity but also in eco-credentials as well. Ultra eco-conscious shoppers and everyday consumers alike have embraced online shopping as the greener shopping option.
But, surely, all of those individual packages and packing peanuts can’t be doing wonders for the environment. And how about all of that carbon-based fuel used during shipping? There’s only one inevitable conclusion: Online shopping has been completely green washed…right?
The answer to that is a little convoluted. Let’s take a deeper look at both sides of the argument, and what you can personally do to up ecommerce’s green sheen.
Online Shopping: The Green Version
The bulk of the pro-green online shopping research stems from an influential Carnegie Mellon study conducted in 2009. The report concluded that ecommerce is greener than brick and mortar shops in two key ways: the carbon costs associated with maintaining a physical store and the carbon fuel costs associated with customer transport.
Not only is fuel required to ship products to physical stores, which in themselves rely on carbon-based energy to operate, but it’s also required to drive individual customers there and back. This cost increases as customers comparison shop between competitors and return purchased products.
Brick and mortars also tend to overstock and return unsold items, requiring further transport. And that initial shipment takes a pretty circuitous route in the first place, as the global supply chain tends to use both distribution and central warehouses rather than shipping products directly, which also increases the amount of carbon emitted as the warehouses, too, must be powered.
This is in stark contrast to online shopping, for which products aren’t shipped unless there is an immediate demand, and there’s little need for customers to leave their homes unless they need to return a product.
Online Shopping: The Downsides
That said, ecommerce isn’t a perfect medium, and being “greener” doesn’t necessarily mean “green.” Warehousing is actually comparable to ecommerce (you are, after all, still shipping your purchases), with last mile delivery responsible for as much as 32 percent of an online purchase’s emissions. That said, this still results in 600 grams less carbon dioxide emitted overall per delivery than that to brick and mortar stores, according to the Carnegie Mellon study.
The second biggest problem with online shopping is (surprise, surprise) packaging. According to the Carnegie Mellon study, packaging materials account for 22 percent of an online purchase’s carbon impact. This, however, varies widely between online retailers, who are the primary decision makers in determining whether Styrofoam peanuts or recycled paper are stuffed into those boxes for cushioning. In fact, the same can be said for any other evaluated factor, as online retailers also somewhat determine shipping logistics (the bigger the retailer, the more power and choice they have).
More recent studies have also added an interesting caveat into the mix: scale. For example, a study conducted in 2010 by the Institution of Engineering and Technology found that shoppers need to buy at least 25 products from any given website, replace a trip to a store located 31 miles or more away, or replace 3.5 shopping trips before environmental benefits kick in.
How to Make Your Online Shopping Greener
So, what’s the final verdict on ecommerce’s green factor? It’s still largely open to interpretation, though it does lean in ecommerce’s favor.
However, as consumers, we can do our own part to make online shopping more green by demanding that retailers use only shipping supplies that can be recycled. And when you do receive eco-friendly packing supplies, do what you can to reuse and recycle.
We talked to Nate Tarin at Staples Industrial for a few expert tips.
1. Repurpose. “Add some decorative wrapping paper to cardboard boxes and you can create a great storage bin for books and toys,” suggests Tarin. “And who knows when you’re going to need all of that packing paper for wrapping fragile items like ornaments post-holidays or glasses during a move?”
And don’t forget, bubble wrap provides great amusement for the kids (it’s still bad for the environment, but at least there’s a fun diversion in all of this).
2. Reuse = Reship. Chances are, you’re going to need to return or mail other items later down the line. Save boxes and packing supplies just for this purpose, and get a good roll of packing tape to keep things secure. Adds Tarin, “You’ll be saving money while you save the environment.”
3. Fertilize Your Garden. Believe it or not, many shipping supplies are actually compostable, just as long as you shred them. Shredded paper can go right into the compost, as can packaging made from coconut fiber or hemp. Just toss them onto your compost pile with grass clippings and food waste, and you’ll soon have rich material for your whole garden.
4. Get Creative with Packing Peanuts. While a few recycling centers actually will take foam packing peanuts, chances are you’re going to need to reuse them. You can use them as a lighter replacement for gravel in the base of a potted plant, or make the ice you take on a picnic last longer by placing them in a plastic bag on top of your ice.
Online shopping may be greener than in-person shopping, but it’s only as green as you make it (or insist that it be). Embracing a reduce, reuse, recycle mentality will go a long way towards increasing your online shopping habit’s green.
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