What’s more sustainable — shopping online or buying in-store? This is the question that academics, journalists and retailers have been debating since before the boom of online shopping caused by the COVID-19 crisis.
Online shopping in the US is on the rise, growing from 6% of overall retail sales excluding auto and gas in 2010 to 15% in early 2019. This year, the global pandemic forced our shopping habits to shift primarily into the online space. It’s predicted that online retail sales will reach $748 billion in 2020 compared to $598 billion last year, according to FTI Consulting.
Unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to give you a clear answer on whether that’s a good or bad thing. “The answer is not simple, both in-store and online have opportunities and drawbacks,” says Sandra Roos, a researcher who is currently head of sustainability at KappAhl, one of Scandinavia’s biggest fashion retailers.
With so many variables — what and how many items you buy, your chosen transport, failed deliveries and rate of return — all factoring into your environmental footprint, it makes for quite the ethical conundrum for the conscious consumer. But we’re going to break it down for you.
One of the biggest environmental issues to consider here is carbon emissions.
There are a number of stops your new dress or handbag makes between the warehouse and your wardrobe. From a brand’s distribution center, it will either travel to a store or a parcel distribution center (think UPS or FedEx). The “last mile” of the journey between the store or warehouse and your door is considered to be the most energy-intensive of the journey.
One of the biggest concerns about in-store shopping is how we travel. In the US in 2015, 88% of grocery shopping trips were made by car. “We have to change how we travel to and from the store,” says Roos. “We can’t drive a two-tonnes car to the store to buy a 100-gram t-shirt — that’s a lot of transport work for such a small article.” However, a 2019 study by Deloitte and commissioned by the property group Simon found that on average, mall shoppers buy 3.5 products per trip because they’re more likely to browse through several different stores or buy in bulk when they shop in-store. In the long run, this can mean fewer car journeys and lower emissions.
Experts believe that “trip chaining” — combining a shopping trip with other errands or activities — is one way of mitigating our carbon emissions. By incorporating a shopping trip into a bigger journey, our carbon emissions are lowered because transport is being allocated for different purposes. Alternatively, walking, using public transport, car-pooling or cycling to the store are great low-carbon options.
Now let’s take online shopping. Amazon’s Black Friday sales alone will generate an estimated 5.1 million transactions in a day, creating 18,854 metric tons of carbon emissions, according to the Dirty Delivery Report. While online shopping may be more sustainable in some ways — one van delivering dozens of packages to your area can be better than many people driving to a store — it’s thought that between 10% and 50% of online deliveries fail the first time round in the UK for parcels that require a person at home to receive the item, according to data published between 2001 and 2009. ( though maybe not during the pandemic when we’re home all the time) meaning the delivery van has to make another trip, or the customer has to drive to a depot to collect their package.
Like with in-store shopping, the amount we buy impacts the sustainability of our purchases.
“Doubling the average number of items purchased per e-commerce transaction,” the consulting firm Bain found, “can reduce average per-item emissions by 30%,” — as long as you would have bought the second or fourth item anyway. So instead of many lots of small, frequent purchases, it’s worth keeping a wishlist and waiting to buy multiple things that can be bundled in one order to cut down on the number of deliveries and packaging needed.
It’s also worth choosing the slowest delivery option available, as next day deliveries often force the retailer to choose the quickest, but not necessarily the most efficient, way of getting your purchase to you on time.
An obvious benefit to shopping in-store is the ability to try items on for size as well as feeling the quality of construction and materials before you make your decision. “In the store, we can try the garments on, which reduces the risk for bad fit,” says Roos. The Deloitte white paper found that when items are bought in-store, the return rate is around 7% compared to 40% for online purchases. “If shoppers buy four items online and return two because they don’t fit or the color wasn’t right, the impact is 70% higher compared with buying the same products at the mall and not having to return them,” the report said.
Not only does returning items increase their overall carbon footprint, but what happens to returned clothing is equally concerning. Tobin Moore, the CEO of Optoro, a company that offers retailers solutions to manage returns, told CNBC last year “Many retailers end up throwing away over 25% of their returns.” What’s more, Optoro’s most recent impact report calculated, “5 billion lbs of waste from returns are sent to landfill. That’s equivalent to more than 3 [times] the amount of waste the entire city of Seattle generates in a year.”
Gartner, a company that offers retailers solutions to manage returns, estimates that just add: 48% of clothing returns make it back into the store’s inventory for resale. In the US alone, delivery logistics was $117.2 billion in 2017. Considering returns are often free to customers, This cost lands on the retailers, so it’s cheaper and easier for them to send returned items to landfill.
“If a customer buys a garment in two or even three different sizes, tries them on at home and sends back the sizes that don’t fit, it is essential that these garments are made available and sold to another customer,” says Roos. Since we can’t rely on most retailers to do this, get into the store to try things on when you’re not sure about the sizing.
Packaging is probably the most obvious red flag for online shoppers who are concerned about waste. A recent McKinsey report surveyed American consumers and found that 55% of respondents were extremely concerned about the environmental impact of packaging — with good reason. The Parcel Shipping Index found in 14.7 billion packages were shipped in the US in 2019. The EPA reported in 2018 that corrugated boxes like those used for shipping constituted the largest share of container and packaging waste, generating 33.3 million tons of waste, of which 940,000 tons went into landfills. Last year, the Deloitte study found that online shopping creates five times as many returned items.
While packaging is impossible to avoid, the growing consumer desire to see more sustainable options on the market is fuelling innovation in the sector, from RePack’s reusable and recycled packaging to noissue’s compostable packaging made from corn. But these companies represent a small percentage of the total market. For wide-scale change to occur, packaging innovations have to be adopted by industry leaders and become the most accessible and easy option for consumers.
Thanks to the rising consumer demand for more sustainable alternatives, the future of shopping in-store and online is being rapidly reimagined. “I think we will in the future see that the fashion industry has actually come quite far on the journey to transparency compared to other industries,” says Roos. She believes that building greater awareness about the carbon footprint of our purchases, by introducing product labelling and offering customers more shipping and packaging options, will increase our ability to make better buying decisions. It may be a few years yet until these kinds of things are commonplace, so in the meantime, it’s up to us to shop thoughtfully, whether masked and in the store, or at home on our laptops.
In summary, that means shopping in person when you’re not sure about the fit and quality, taking public transportation or shopping in your neighborhood, and saving up purchases and errands to get during the same trip. If you’re shopping online, make a wishlist and try to get everything in the same box, choose the slowest shipping option, and try to patronize brands that use sustainable packaging.