4 Ways To Green Your Online Shopping

Shopping online is easier—but it can be really bad for your carbon footprint.

With the holidays fast approaching, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales to pick through, Canadians are ramping up their holiday shopping. According to a report from PWC, a professional services firm, Canadians plan to do 41 percent of their holiday shopping online and Amazon Prime memberships are up 60 percent from last year in Canada. While picking out the perfect gifts for loved ones from the comfort of your own home sounds easy and convenient, the environmental impact of online shopping—and shipping—can be huge.

In theory, online shopping could be greener than going to a store. A 2013 study from MIT found that the carbon footprint of an average shopper driving to the mall to buy a toy may be higher than that of the same shopper buying the same toy online with regular shipping. This is because carriers use more-efficient delivery systems and online shopping could result in there being comparatively fewer vehicles on the road than if every single shopper drove to the mall. It isn’t all black and white, however. “It’s so purchase-specific because there are so many factors,” says Christie Stephenson, the Executive Director of the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics at the University of British Columbia. “If you’re walking down the street, it’s obviously going to be a different environmental impact than if you’re driving to five different stores to try something on before driving home.” Generally speaking, walking or taking public transit to a store is usually more environmentally friendly than online shopping with rushed shipping.

With all the extra shopping that goes on during the holidays, and the increase in online shopping in general, here are 4 ways to make your online shopping a bit more green:

Pick the slowest shipping option

It’s tempting to pick two-day shipping: it’s often free or super cheap—and why wouldn’t you want your purchase ASAP? However, faster shipping drastically increases the carbon emissions generated.

When shoppers pick the fastest shipping options, shippers prioritize speed over efficiency. That means that purchases may not be as consolidated as they could be, leading to separate packages for one order, more packaging waste and more vehicles on the road to fulfill orders as fast as possible. Rushed packages are also often delivered on planes (which are a lot more carbon-pollution-heavy than ground vehicles like trucks and trains) and selecting next-day or two-day shipping means that shippers could be sending out trucks that are half-empty in order to get deliveries to customers faster.
Selecting slower shipping options gives retailers the chance to consolidate orders into as few boxes as possible, pack trucks as full as possible and choose the most efficient routes. All of this results in a much more efficient system that lowers the environmental impact of your online purchases.

Limit the number of orders you make

This might take a little bit of extra planning, but it’s worth it. By waiting until your online shopping cart is full, rather than ordering item by item, companies will be able to consolidate your delivery into fewer boxes, leading to fewer vehicles needed to transport your package and less overall packaging.

Similarly, keeping a running list of things you want to buy and then making one big order once a month will help reduce the number of deliveries needed. This is a great tactic if you can plan ahead, have regular purchases or you want to buy something you don’t need immediately.

Avoid unnecessary returns

Since retailers have started offering free (or low-cost) returns, customers have taken advantage of the policy. This policy gets used even more during busy shopping holidays like Black Friday and Cyber Monday: according to Canada Post, return volumes increased 17 percent during Cyber Week in 2018, compared to the week prior.

Returned items’ extra journey may be free for the customer, but it costs the environment. “In addition to just the shipping, it’s also the global supply chain that got that product to you,” says Carol Liao, a business law professor at the University of British Columbia. Often, returned items don’t just go back to the local store or the closest fulfillment centre, they feed into a global logistics system that may take the item to be processed in a country where wages are lower.

Choosing to order less and minimizing unnecessary returns, or returning items to a brick and mortar store if you can walk to it, are great ways to green your online shopping.

Buy less

Ultimately, buying less is the best way to reduce your shopping’s carbon footprint. However, this might be easier said than done. A 2018 UPS survey found that 40 percent of Canadians might use both online and offline shopping for the same purchase—generating emissions from both. For example, they might visit a store to look at a product or try it on and then order it online. Being more mindful of what we buy, how we buy it and whether we really need it will go a long way.

“We need to buy less, buy local, use local, recycle more,” says Liao. “If we want to be operating within the planetary boundaries, we need to cut off on things that are luxury, wasteful items that are not good for the climate that harm our carbon footprint and everyone needs to be more versed on climate going forward.”

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