Online shopping is sometimes the most environmentally friendly option

Is today’s online shopping boom bad for the environment? Not necessarily, according to new research by Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and TNO. In late 2019, they conducted a broad survey into the effect of different shopping options on carbon emissions. It turns out that ordering goods online for home delivery can actually be the most environmentally friendly option sometimes.

Online shopping has really taken off, especially now that the possibility to go to bricks-and-mortar stores is severely limited due to the pandemic. However, the degree of sustainability of a consumer’s shopping activity is heavily influenced by their own behaviour. The most sustainable choice is to walk or cycle to a collection point or store. By far the worst decision is to drive to pick up a single parcel or to visit a single store. Compared with that, ordering goods online for home delivery turns out to be a much more sustainable option.

Consumer shopping behaviour

In December 2019 and January 2020 (pre-COVID-19), the survey analysed the online purchasing behaviour of 4,468 Dutch consumers. Although a purchase can consist of multiple deliveries and multiple packages per delivery, on average approximately 93% of online purchases are delivered in a single delivery moment. Since the study investigated the carbon emissions per purchase (i.e. multiple deliveries and multiple packages), the carbon emissions per purchase are higher than the emissions per delivered package.

In addition, the study researched the general shopping behaviour of consumers. The car is the most frequently used means of transport in the Netherlands for daily (49%), non-daily (55%) and large (72%) purchases. While the frequency of visits to shopping areas for daily purchases has hardly changed over the past 13 years, there has been a significant decrease in the frequency with which people go shopping for non-daily and large purchases.

Emissions from shopping trips, collections and home deliveries

The study only analysed the carbon emissions produced in the last leg of the goods transport journey. In the case of online shopping, this covered the delivery from the last distribution centre (possibly via a collection point or store) to the consumer’s home address (also including returns). In the case of physical shopping trips, it covered the consumer’s journey to the store and back again. The analysis shows that shopping trips, collections and home deliveries can all be sustainable choices in theory.

But whether a purchase is actually sustainable in practice depends on several factors: the means of transport the consumer uses to get to the collection point or the store, the distance covered and the extent to which the consumer combines the trip with other purchases. Driving to a store to make one purchase or to pick up a single online order is a bad choice from an environmental perspective, because on average it generates more than three times the emissions as home delivery of an online order. The most sustainable option is to pick up a product by walking or cycling to a store or collection point.

Based on the results of the survey, it was calculated that home delivery produces an average of 250-550g of CO2 (250g is comparable to the emissions generated by 0.1-0.2 litres of petrol, Ed.). That translates into an average of 230g of CO2 per parcel (based on parcel shipping data from 2017). More recent figures from carriers show that it can be assumed that this average has improved significantly over the past three years thanks to more efficient routes, less packaging resulting in smaller parcels, and the growing use of zero-emission transport.

Strong differences per product type

The study analysed over 7,100 online purchases by consumers and identified considerable differences per product type. On average, for example, buying consumer electronics goods online is more environmentally friendly than making physical purchases. The opposite is true for products such as cosmetics, however, since under normal circumstances consumers can often shop locally (i.e. they can walk or cycle to the store) and can combine their purchase with shopping for other goods or with other activities.

Additionally, the research by Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and TNO demonstrates that it is beneficial to have collection points and stores located close to residential areas so that they are easily accessible on foot or by bicycle. The analysis also reveals that home delivery is actually a very environmentally acceptable way for consumers to receive their purchases, especially if the alternative would be for the consumer to drive to a store and back again purely for the purpose of making one purchase.