hand holding smartphone, screen showing eCommerce Market

It can be so exciting to receive an anticipated package from Amazon or a steaming hot pizza on our doorstep. More than ever, we’re making purchases with a scroll and click instead of a trip to a brick-and-mortar business. But, what is the social and environmental cost of online shopping? If shoppers are staying home to make their purchases, is this a greener system? Or does online shopping have hidden environmental costs that make the system unsustainable? Let’s take a look.

Cut Emissions From Online Deliveries

The transportation sector now emits more greenhouse gases than power plants in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration. Nearly one-quarter of transportation emissions are from medium and heavy-duty trucks.

Online shopping can be so convenient that it’s making our shopping habits more wasteful. Instead of items being delivered to central locations and shoppers driving to stores (ideally in relatively fuel-efficient vehicles), goods are being delivered to our doorsteps in less efficient trucks.

With eBay and Amazon Prime, many items are shipped free of charge, so shoppers aren’t motivated to consolidate orders to save on shipping charges. Due to shopper demand for fast delivery, delivery trucks are often sent half-empty on their routes instead of waiting for a full load. Online shopping — and small orders in particular — are increasing pollution, noise, and congestion.

Solutions: As shoppers, we can consolidate orders by planning ahead, avoiding expedited shipping, and exercising conscious consumerism by buying less new stuff and supporting locally-owned retailers.

Reduce Packaging Waste

Have you had this experience? I’ve ordered a single small item such as a tube of toothpaste and had it arrive in a box large enough for a five-year supply. Although cardboard is relatively easy to recycle, many common shipping materials are harder to recycle or reuse. Many packages come filled with Styrofoam peanuts, bubble wrap, plastic films, sticky tape, and other bits. Although combining orders helps reduce this waste,  it’s only a good start.

Pile of used packaging
Let online retailers know your concerns about excessive packaging and that you want recyclable packing materials. Image: Adobe Stock

Solutions: Contact online retailers and let them know you want them to reduce packaging, use shipping supplies with high post-consumer recycled content, and use only recyclable packing materials. Retailers are incentivized to use the cheapest materials, so consumers need to make their green preferences known. While you’re at it, encourage them to use electric delivery trucks to cut emissions.

If you order food delivery online, seek out restaurants that don’t use Styrofoam and use as little packaging as possible. Ask them to hold the plastic utensils and unneeded condiments. And be sure to recycle or compost packing and surplus food. 

Support Local Businesses

Online shopping has many advantages. It allows us to research numerous products in mere minutes. Online reviews can provide relevant product information that helps us select superior goods. Most online purchases, however, support distant businesses, but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

store window with "Yes, we are open" sign
When possible, patronize local businesses. Photo by Artem Bali from Pexels

Solution: Shopping locally helps strengthen your community. Use the internet to research goods and then make purchases at locally owned businesses whenever possible. Locally.com helps simplify this by connecting shoppers to local retailers. 

Use Green Online Retailers

From recycled glassware to handcrafted products made from sustainably harvested bamboo, a variety of very appealing green products are available online. Some of these items might be difficult or impossible to purchase at locally owned brick-and-mortar stores. If you can’t find what you need at a local shop, consider supporting businesses like Etsy, Viva Terra, and Bambeco.

Do you have a favorite green online retailer?

Feature image by PhotoMIX Ltd. from Pexels

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.