A closer look at the environmental impact of online sales

environmental issues and online shopping



I have a long driveway—maybe ¼ mile—and I walked to the bottom to pick up a box from WalMart—an order I had placed a few days prior, that included maybe half a dozen items. The box I found on day 1 contained foam packing peanuts, brown paper wrap, plastic wrap, a cardboard box and one plastic bottle of dish soap.

I went through the same thing—walked to my mailbox, lugged the box up my hill, unwrapped three or more layers of packing to find another item. This process repeated at least five, maybe six times until my order was complete.

We want food unbruised, glass unbroken, crackers unsmashed–and more. Yet packaging products most often end up in landfills.

how the problem is being addressed by two companies

To address the problem of overpacking for our environment, Amazon has started using boxes that are customized to the exact size of the product being shipped.

In response to customer feedback on overpackaging, FreshDirect plans to eliminate boxes for delivery and completely replace them with recyclable paper bags.

Also, online shopping can utilize cardboard, which is recyclable, while a trip to a traditional store may mean going home with a plastic bag.


Transportation is the biggest environmental concern for e-commerce.

study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the further away someone lived from a store and the less efficient the method of transport, then the more eco-friendly it would be to buy online. Offline shoppers generally have a carbon footprint about twice that of online shoppers who never go inside a physical store.

These should be considered in determining the environmental costs of each option:

How efficient is your car?

How many other items are you buying while you’re out?

How many shoppers are you driving to the store?

How far do you live from the store?

Obviously, scale-tippers are walking to stores (more eco-friendly) and using public transportation (also probably more eco-friendly).

Another note: if delivery companies switched to using electric vehicles and more efficient routes (that don’t always guarantee quick delivery) then we’d probably have another scale-tipper.

a conclusion

Considering all factors, for most shoppers, online is between 18-87% more eco-friendly than driving to the store–which means there’s plenty of room for improvement.

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