At first glance, loading your items into a digital shopping cart and getting them delivered to your doorstep might have a smaller environmental footprint than a trip to the shops. Even Jeff Bezos, founder of e-commerce heavyweight Amazon, once wrote to the company’s shareholders, “Shopping online is already inherently more carbon efficient than going to the store.”
In theory, this is true. The logistics of online shopping are more efficient than traditional retail in ideal scenarios. Think about how much less pollution and emissions occurs when one truck makes multiple grocery deliveries in the same neighbourhood versus several individual car trips to the supermarket.
However, as people get used to speedier deliveries and hassle-free returns, these new norms risk cancelling out the environmental benefits of not traveling to a physical store. Expedited shipping—same-day, bullet-speed, or express deliveries—produce almost 0.75 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2e) per shopper, more than twice that of regular delivery methods. In China, quick deliveries account for more than 10 percent of overall deliveries, fuelled by the falling cost of shipping.
The convenience of ordering a product online in just a few clicks, with the option to return it for a small price or for free, has made it easy for consumers to justify purchases even without physically touching them or trying them. A fifth of e-commerce buys today are returned, twice as many as purchases made in physical stores.
The rejected items, along with their packaging, gets dumped in landfills.
Thousands of delivery trucks—most powered by fossil fuels—are also needed to transport the sheer volume of packages from warehouses to consumers. Packages may be passed from truck to truck on the way to their end destinations, and with commutes expected to increase by 21 percent due to extra traffic, the carbon footprint of online orders is set to rise. The World Economic Forum predicts that emissions from urban last-mile deliveries will increase by more than 30 percent in 100 cities all over the world, as more delivery vehicles are dispatched to meet rising e-commerce demand.
All this means that e-commerce might be inherently far less green than it seems.
And that’s not even considering the additional demand e-commerce platforms can create overnight, using digital marketing and targeted campaigns at a global scale. Special sales events such as China’s Singles’ Day—an “anti-Valentine’s Day" started by Nanjing University students in 1993, which Alibaba transformed into a global shopping festival in 2009—rake in billions of online sales, breaking their own records each year.
To put things in context, environmental advocacy group Greenpeace reported that Singles’ Day orders in 2016 generated 52,400 tonnes of CO2 emissions, equivalent to 57.7 million pounds of coal burned. In 2020, almost four billion packages were shipped during the 12-day-long shopping extravaganza.