Many products are bought online today. Since some products are available more cheaply on the internet where the selection does not depend on time or place, the customer can save time, money and journeys. But is internet shopping climate-friendly?
Factors of climate-friendly shopping
Conventional shopping unarguably has benefits: in a shop you can be advised by shop assistants and more easily find what you are looking for. As a result there are fewer returns, meaning that fewer journeys are made and, if these are done by car, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are saved. Additionally, the traditional retail sector is bolstered and the attractiveness of local shopping areas increases.
With internet shopping the compact storage of products in warehouses has advantages in terms of energy consumption: generally large warehouses consume less electricity and heating and are thus more energy-efficient than shop storage. The strong lighting of products in shops alone can amount to up to 40 watts per square metre of selling space. In contrast the environmental footprint of internet shopping is influenced by the power consumption of the home computer and the server of the internet companies.
Sending products by parcel carrier can often be more climate-friendly than shopping-based car journeys. Shipping products by parcel carrier causes fewer GHG emissions (approx. 600 grams (1,200 grams if returned) than an average shopping trip by car of six kilometres (approx. 2,400 grams).
But all too often there is more than one delivery per internet order - the shoes that were ordered are too small, the colour of the jumper looked different online, the price/performance ratio does not live up to expectations. The product is then sent back and often exchanged for another.
Home delivery: the fewer journeys, the better the carbon footprint
“The return rates of a large German internet shoe retailer, for example, are estimated to be up to 70 per cent. The return rates for the clothing industry overall are likely to be approx. 50 per cent. However in the case of electronic articles the rates are likely significantly lower!” says Moritz Mottschall, researcher in Oeko-Institut’s Infrastructure and Enterprises Division.
Furthermore the parcels often cannot be delivered if the recipient is not at home. If it cannot be left with a neighbour, the carrier may take the parcel away again and attempt another delivery drop at a later date or take it to a packing station or parcel shop where it is then collected by the recipient – not infrequently by car.
By contrast conventional shoppers can quickly improve their carbon footprints. If three people go on an av erage shopping trip by car or use public transport, it causes approx. 800 grams of CO2 emissions. Those who shop by foot or bike are the most climate-friendly.
Resource consumption of shopping online
The parcels used for internet clothes shopping, which have a weight of approx. half a kilo on average, cause approx. 350 grams of GHG emissions. Some companies use a standard parcel size, i.e. their size does not depend on the content. The smaller the products contained therein, the more air is transported. Only when the parcel sizes match the content in each case can resources be saved and better use made of the space inside the carrier vehicles.
Another frequent situation with internet shopping is separate shipping: If all ordered products are not at the warehouse at the same time, they are generally sent separately in multiple deliveries, which increases the emissions caused by packaging and delivery. At the same time conventional shops also have delivery emissions since the products are generally delivered in bulk in secondary packaging.
Additional researched needed
Overall there are still many open questions (especially in terms of consumer behaviour) which need to be answered before detailed assessment can be made of what is more environmentally friendly - internet or conventional shopping. For example, what is the shopping and selection behaviour of consumers? How do they make their shopping trips (e.g. by car, bike, foot)? How many products do consumers buy on average?…
Oeko-Institut will be addressing these questions in future and providing information about planned and completed projects.
Researcher in Infrastructure & Enterprises Division
Oeko-Institut e.V., Berlin office