Which is More Sustainable: Brick and Mortar or Online Shopping?

After a hundredth debate with family and friends over collecting a parcel from her online shopping, Anne-Sophie has decided to find the answer to the question once and for all.

Is shopping in brick and mortar more sustainable than shopping online?

The topic of producing products with lower impacts on the environment is of central importance. However, to do so the entire process of commerce, from the primary commodity sourcing to the return and disposal of the products, must be sustainable.

As the trends evolve faster and the supply increases, more and more shops choose to only exist online. Bringing to the customers more options to choose from, no extra costs for shipping and overnight delivery option – well who would not be tempted? As a concerned customer, how can we make an informed decision when purchasing a goods, more specifically how it gets from one location to another?

Pros:

DO YOUR RESEARCH

By purchasing online, you have easy access to information and get the possibility to research the products, how they are made, what they are made of and where. You can make an informed decision about the brands you are shopping from and their sustainability and ethics policies or lack-there-of. Looking for B Corp, ECOCERT or UPS Carbon Neutral certifications is a start, but being part of a label can be misleading. Take the time to read those ethics and values sections of their websites and know who you are buying from and how it gets to you.

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Studies have shown that online shopping can be more environmentally friendly

LESS CO2 EMISSIONS FROM TRANSPORT

With e-commerce there is no need for a centrally located warehouse which reduces the energy and space use. Having the products go directly to the customer reduces CO2 emissions by 30% compared to traditional retailing. The customers no longer have to travel to a store location to purchase from their favourite brands, which itself represented 65% of the CO2 emissions from traditional retailing. However, overnight shipping is adding pressures to hurry the delivery which forces the online shops to use transport methods which have a greater impact on the environment.

Cons:

THE EASIER IS IT TO BUY CLOTHES, THE MORE YOU BUY

The cheaper and easier it is to buy clothes; the more clothes you buy and have to dispose of in the end. Compulsive shopping online causes environmental problems due to the pace at which things become irrelevant and end up wasted. When shopping online we tend to splurge more and take less time to think about what we are buying. When we finally try on that pair of jeans for the first time it might fit or look different from what we expected. Disappointed and still in need of new jeans, we send them back and order new ones. Those behaviors too often go hand in hand with online shopping and not only cause an increase of the carbon footprint of e-commerce significantly but a waste of time and resources.

THE ADDITIONAL PACKAGING

We all have that image in mind of the meters and meters high piles of Amazon boxes at the post office. More orders mean more packaging used to send the products and protect them individually during the transport. A phenomenon which represents 29.8% of the waste in the US in 2015. A type of waste largely formed of non-recyclable materials. Although some compagnies claim that their packaging is made of recycled material and can be recycled, the amount of energy and carton boxes used is enormous and keeps increasing. Significant efforts are still to be made by the e-commerce to optimise packaging.The consumer has a role to play too, when purchasing high value items which need more protection (laptops, TV etc.), online orders could be picked up in local stored thus reducing the need for more protective packaging.

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Support your independent or second-hand shops

ALL IN ALL

All in all, shopping online is not the monster it is made out to be. E-commerce emits less carbon than brick-and-mortar, however this depends highly on the type of transport, the speed of delivery and the customer’s behaviour regarding frequency of shopping, returns and disposal. Replacing one by the other is not a solution. Adapting the shopping method to the products you are purchasing seems like a reasonable and easy way to lower your carbon footprint and get the goods you want or need. Shopping online will never give you the shopping experience and human contact you get when buying your cheese from the local market or when you buy a nice pair of trousers from an independent or second-hand shop. Support the local producers when possible and value the resources used to bring your shopping to you.

A few things to keep in mind. Happy shopping!

About the Author: Anne-Sophie is a Swiss-French 3rd year university student in Human Geography and Environment at the University of York. She is passionate about sustainability and the opportunities raising from its challenges. She follows that passion wherever it leads her. You can find her on instagram @thehungrytravellingsisters.

One comment

  1. The overnight shipping is of great concern, especially in rural areas. There are often times when a delivery truck makes a special trip to an out-of-the-way destination just to get that book in someone’s hands the next day. Regular shipping takes longer because items are grouped to be delivered when there are enough to justify the run, this from my friendly UPS delivery person.

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