Digital Citizenship

The Hidden Cost of Online Shopping

The Effect E-Commerce Is Having On Our Environment

‘Free delivery,’ ‘free returns,’ ‘mega sales.’ We see phrases like these plastered all over the online retail world, enticing us to order, order, order. However, what is the true cost of our online shopping habits? This post will explore the reality of the environmental effects of e-commerce. From buying unnecessary items to the carbon emissions involved in shipping, the packaging of products, and returns methods, I will look at several elements of the online shopping process and the effects this lifestyle is having on our environment.

Shopping for dopamine?

Commonly referred to as retail therapy, comfort shopping is a common addiction. Researchers at Stanford found that merely looking at a photograph of something you wish to buy activates dopamine receptors in your brain. Dopamine is generally triggered by anything new or exciting, making shopping a strong trigger. Following the dopamine high experienced when shopping is a low (much like that experienced through alcohol or drugs), a sense of guilt or regret can be felt in this low; however, to overcome this feeling, we search for the high again; we buy more.

At one stage, our ‘shopaholic’ tendencies were controlled by shop opening hours, and factors such as travel and time acted as a deterrent. However, with constant access to online shops from any location at any time, we shop until our hearts- or brains- are content. While searching for this shopping high, we purchase countless non-essential items, many of which will never be used. The carbon emissions in the creation and disposal of these non-essential items accumulate to be extremely harmful to our environment. Due to the wide accessibility of online shopping, we are buying more and more of these non-essential items increasing the carbon emissions connected to this lifestyle. 2020 has seen a rise in online shopping as we are globally being encouraged to stay home and many physical shops are temporarily closed. According to a survey carried out by Izea on 1,061 U.S citizens, 45% of people have purchased non-essential items during the lockdown.

The carbon in your shopping cart

So many of us have become accustomed to the online shopping process; click a few buttons, and a few days later, a van pulls up outside your house to hand you exactly what you ordered. How often do we stop to question this process and the journey our orders have undertaken before reaching us? As long as the delivery is free or cheap, we rarely ask the distance our packages must travel before they arrive at their destination. However, the further our packages must travel, the more carbon is released. Online shopping opens us up to a worldwide market, a market we would not have the same access to when shopping in physical stores. However, this means we often buy from shops located in different countries and often different continents to us. The journey these goods must then undergo to reach us uses means such as road, rail, air, and ship, which all release high levels of carbon into the atmosphere.

According to BAIN, online shoppers order fewer items per transaction. Therefore to achieve the same purchase volume as when visiting a physical store, consumers tend to place multiple online orders resulting in several deliveries. This shows that to buy the same amount of goods, only one journey’s worth of carbon is emitted by the consumer when visiting a store compared to the several journeys carried out by a courier associated with online shopping. Additionally, many online shops have adopted a policy whereby each item in an order will be shipped once ready, causing each item to be delivered seperately. This causes each item to have a significantly higher carbon footprint than when delivered as part of a larger order.

More parcel than product

Online shopping creates waste in more ways than one; however, there is one obvious source of waste visible to all online consumers; packaging. In 2019 Ireland accumulated 11,740 tonnes of waste due to packaging from online orders. This has risen by 25% to 2,953 tonnes in 2020. Our parcels arrive wrapped, bagged, boxed, and protected to the absolute limit when we shop online. In many cases, more packaging may arrive at your door than actual product. While often made of long-lasting materials, this packaging only serves a purpose for a few days before being disposed of. This mass waste is a contributor to the pollution of our environment. While many companies have opted for recyclable packaging, many larger online distributors are still using plastic and other non-recyclable materials to package their online orders. While only serving a purpose for a short period, these materials will remain on the planet for several years to come in the form of pollution. Packaging of online shopping orders negatively affects the environment when disposed of as well as the process of creating these packaging requiring high energy levels and materials that are not sustainable. By choosing to shop in-store instead of online, much of the packaging is omitted, lessening the purchase’s environmental impact.

But where are my returns now?

A key element of online shopping is online returns. A quick and easy process that is often offered by retailers free of charge. But what impact is this process having on our environment? When an item is returned, retailers will usually send the product to a landfill, releasing carbon into the atmosphere if it cannot be resold quickly and economically. In an article for ‘Bloomber Opinion’ (6), Adam Minter says In December, American consumers will return more than 1 million packages to E-Commerce retailers every day. This flood of returns peaks on January 2nd, A day which UPS deliveries nicknames ‘national returns day’. These returns alone in the U.S. account for 5 billion pounds of landfill waste And 15 million tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere. Minter also goes on to say Optoro inc., a company that manages online returns, estimates only 10% of their handlings end up back on shelves. A large contributor to online returns is the clothing industry. Clothing returns are said to account for 40-50% of online returns. With online returns being so straightforward and cheap, many consumers purposely order clothing items in several sizes and colors, intending to return the items  which are not appropriate. One market research firm explains this practice by saying, “the bedroom is the new fitting room.” Aparna Mehta, who presented a Ted Talk on this topic, stated that every year 4 billion lbs of returned clothes end up in a landfill.

The positive effects

With all this evidence suggesting that online shopping is damaging our atmosphere, it is easy to wonder should it be abolished? However, there are many positive options when online shopping. There are many websites that offer a chance for people to resell their unwanted items. On line facilities such as Done-Deal, Facebook marketplace, and eBay give unwanted items a chance to be bought at a lower price instead of being disposed of and emitting carbon into the atmosphere. Many of these websites are tailored to show goods that are for sale in your local proximity. This prevents items from needing to travel long distances to be obtained by their new owners, which lowers this purchase’s carbon footprint.

New clothing resale websites such as Depop and Poshmark have become increasingly popular among younger generations. These websites encourage clothing in good, wearable condition to be resold and re-worn. They keep clothing items in circulation and out of landfill and provide consumers with an affordable and exciting new way to shop. It is clear that there are many negatives to online shopping, by participating in this practice while uninformed of its effects, many consumers can unknowingly be damaging our environment. By adjusting the online shopping process and informing consumers of the impact of their choices this can be changed. Certainly it is possible to turn this currently damaging process into something green and beneficial to all. Previously mentioned resale websites are on track to achieving this. However, like many environmental issues, the key to solving this is through the education of consumers to make conscious, sustainable choices.

Saoirse Boyce is currently an undergraduate student on the Bachelor of Sciences (Applied Social Sciences) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway