The carbon footprint of online shopping

Five paper shopping bags and a shopping cart on a laptop keyboar

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I have been shopping online for several years. Online shopping suits my introverted nature, as it removes the need to talk to salespeople in stores. Online shopping also provides me with access to items I cannot find easily in local stores, particularly since sustainable and vegan products are sometimes more specialized and harder to obtain.

I have been increasingly concerned with the carbon footprint of online shopping. I was surprised to learn that online shopping can be less carbon intensive than shopping in a bricks and mortar store; the key is the type of shipping option. A graduate student at MIT conducted an environmental analysis of US online shopping and found that the carbon footprint of purchasing an item in a store is higher than buying the same thing online with regular shipping.

Customer transportation is the highest carbon footprint for in-store shopping, while packaging and delivery are higher factors for online shopping with regular delivery. In my case, since I use only public transportation, my in-store shopping carbon footprint would be smaller.

The key factor is the type of shipping involved. As people increasingly expect express delivery, especially if they have an Amazon Prime membership, as I do, the carbon footprint of online shopping increases noticeably and exceeds that of in-store shopping. A UPS study of Canadian online shopping behaviour found that 63% of shoppers expect orders placed before noon to be delivered that same day, while 61% of shoppers expect orders placed before 5:00 pm to be delivered the next day. Express shipping reduces a lot of the economies of scale of regular shipping, such as filling trucks to ensure maximum efficiencies, as is shown in the video below.

I am making a concerted effort to avoid online shopping whenever possible and to support local businesses. When online shopping is the only option, I choose regular delivery, usually by Canada Post, which is the most carbon friendly option. I also make a point of asking companies to avoid plastic in their packaging; most are happy to comply.