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Become A Green Shopper: Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Plant in vase

words Daniella Pettenon

We all know those second-to-last row classmates who are constantly shopping online during lectures (I stand guilty). Online shopping is too easy and a little addicting! E-commerce has grown dramatically in the past decade—online retail stores now make a majority of the retail market share in comparison to general retail stores as of 2019.1 Amazon is currently leading the market with its Prime service, providing parcels for its customers in as little as one day. As comedian Ronny Chieng said, we’re just waiting for “Prime Now!”—for someone to immediately place the item into our hand after we click ‘purchase’. 

Do you ever get a package from Amazon and wonder why they had to use such a big box? This alludes to one of many ways online shopping impacts the environment. From excessive packaging to the fuel needed to transport, to the exhaust being discharged into the air when the delivery trucks are idling—the carbon footprint goes up. 

A study2 by former Research Associate at MIT, Dimitri Weideli, looks at three groups of consumers: the traditional shopper, the cybernaut (the online shopper), and the cybernaut impatient (consumers who demand faster delivery regularly). The findings show that cybernaut impatient consumers have the largest carbon footprint; the majority of the emissions come from freight transportation and excessive singular packaging. 

How can we reduce our carbon footprint when we purchase goods? We don’t have to say goodbye to online shopping, but we should consider clustering our purchases by buying multiple products from one provider to make one purchase rather than multiple. Online shopping makes it so easy to just click and buy. It’s convenient when these e-commerce sites can store our credit card information, as well as anticipate our needs and consumer habits. By clustering our purchases, we can reduce the emissions of excessive packaging and decrease gas emissions from freight. 

A significant contributor to e-commerce’s carbon footprint is customers sending back the items that don’t meet our expectations. One out of five purchases get sent back to the provider.3 This number is high because returns are generally free for the consumer. Next time you receive an item that doesn’t quite fit your expectations, consider exchanging or returning the item in-person. This way, you can reduce the carbon footprint by 13%4 and you can ensure that you get exactly what you want. Additionally, avoid purchasing items online that are commonly unpredictable such as bathing suits, furniture, large appliances, and groceries.

Is traditional shopping an eco-friendlier option? Not necessarily. When looking at Weideli’s study,5 we see that the cybernaut consumer emits the least carbon since customer transportation (of traditional shoppers) is the largest contributor out of the entire emission breakdown. If you share a living space with others, consider doing group orders to minimize transportation and packaging carbon emissions. Not only will you reduce your carbon footprint, but you will have opportunities to save money—shipping prices could be reduced, plus the price per item could decrease since companies favour high inventory turnover. 

Before taking advantage of that 40% off sale at Banana Republic, ask your friends and family if they want in on the deal as well. The total cost per person will go down dramatically and you’ll be reducing your carbon footprint while you’re at it—both your pockets and mother nature will be happy.

Findings from Dmitri Weideli’s study on the carbon footprint of online shopping.

Rooney, Kate. 2019. Online shopping overtakes a major part of retail for the first time ever. April 2. 

2, 4, 5  Weideli, Dimitri. 2013. “Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping.” MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics.

3 Orendorff, Aaron. 2017. Shopify Plus. February 27.