Environmental impact of online shopping

Business magazine - Environmental impact of online shopping

Online shopping may not be as green as you think. Here's how shopping online can have a surprisingly large carbon footprint.

Do the preparation task first. Then read the article and do the exercises.


In the past few decades, the way we shop has changed dramatically. We used to buy our goods in traditional shops, on the high street or in department stores. Now, customers are increasingly buying online, where they can order whatever they want directly to their door with the click of a mouse. One in seven sales are now made online and studies suggest that by 2021, global online retail will reach an enormous US$4.8 trillion. As companies race to improve their internet shopping experience, the trend towards shopping online is predicted to continue.

But what is the impact of all this online shopping on the environment? You might think that online shopping is greener than in-store shopping. After all, an online store does not use the electricity that a traditional store might use and it doesn't require the customer to drive anywhere. Items are often delivered to several homes at once, so you would think the carbon savings must be significant. Take the typical home delivery round in the UK, for example. Supermarket drivers often do 120 deliveries on an 80-kilometre round, producing 20 kilograms of CO2 in total. In contrast, a 21-kilometre drive to the store and back for one household would generate 24 times more CO2!

However, the reality is slightly more complex than that. Many home deliveries fail the first time and the driver has to make a second or third attempt to deliver the purchase. Customers who choose speedy delivery or those who buy single items from different places also contribute towards increasing the carbon footprint. 

The carbon footprint also goes up if the customer chooses to return the item. A study in Germany showed that as many as one in three online purchases are returned. According to another study, merchandise worth nearly US$326 million is returned each year in the USA. Two billion kilograms of this ends up in landfill, leading to 13 tonnes of CO2 being released. 

Clothing is one product that has high return rates. Unlike in a walk-in store, the online shopper can't try things on before buying. So, companies offer free returns to make it easier for shoppers to purchase the same item of clothing in different sizes and colours. Customers try them at home, keep one and return the rest of them. However, when clothes are returned, they are not always cleaned and put back for sale. This is because many companies have found it cheaper to simply throw away the returned items than to pay someone to sort the damaged goods from the unwanted ones. In these cases, the returned clothes, which might be in perfect condition, end up in landfills or burnt.

When we take all these factors into consideration, we realise that online shopping isn't necessarily as green as people might think. That last kilometre to your door is costly, for companies and for the environment. There is some positive news, as various online retailers are starting to lower their carbon footprint by investing in electric delivery vehicles. However, the question of how to deal with returns efficiently and without waste is a challenge that many companies have not wanted to face. As online shoppers become aware of what companies are doing, and campaign groups demand urgent action in the face of the climate and ecological emergency, there is increasing pressure for companies to take responsibility for the environmental impact of their activities.

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Submitted by Mati on Mon, 24/08/2020 - 11:52

I preferred to buy in traditional way, because of most the item we should check physical, so i am advising government to ban in some product like cloths, shoes and some other products

Submitted by Julia19 on Wed, 12/08/2020 - 10:37

Recently I began to buy more products online than I did last time. But I still prefer to purchase the cloths on shops rather than online. It' s easy to me to go to the store and chose a few really suitable item to try-on than to take a lot of clothes online and return all of them. After reading this article I'd rather do as I get used to. I think the best thing for online shopping is to bring all the packages to the one place - the issuing point where people could go and try-on there and take only they need. The one such point for a certain area could solve a bit of that problem.

Submitted by AdrianCM on Tue, 16/06/2020 - 04:51

Hello everyone! I am really astonished about this topic, I did not that if we return a procut, choose speed delivery or we buy products from diferente places it causes big carbon footprint. I was shocked to read what companies throw away clothes in landfills because i is cheaper (OMG). Very interesting article. Thank you so much British Council

Submitted by Nief Osman on Fri, 05/06/2020 - 11:19

Very interesting topic, I made multi reserch and study focus on E-commerce. The managment reserch project considerd the rule of inovation for addrsssing poverty through E-commerce. I share multi questioner to the participants;one of the quesion was asking them if they have trip to somewhere and there are persons want to ride on the same path? The results were vert positive due the driver and passengers will benefit from this service , It mean one destination and one vehicle instead of multi Taxi vehicles with one path.

Submitted by senes19 on Thu, 04/06/2020 - 13:42

Yes I do sometimes online shop. But I prefer to purchase items which isn't necessary to try. For example i buy electronic tools or books. And also I take into goods that I have bought at once before consideration. I belive that it is possible to lessen online shoppings environmental bad effects. For this purpose it can create an app or program that reduce the returning of the goods. It can be suggested to the customers early trying or sanal trying.

Submitted by khawaja ibrar on Sun, 31/05/2020 - 14:29

i am running an online store in Pakistan.I think online shopping is helpful to decrease environmental pollution.
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Submitted by Alina Polevaya on Sat, 23/05/2020 - 22:05

I shop online very seldom. Mostly I buy books online. To lessen the environmental impact when shopping online companies should approve delivery time in advance.