The Sustainability of Online Shopping

Julianna Nunez

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, online shopping sales have increased now more than ever. According to a survey conducted by Bazaarvoice, 62% of U.S shoppers have reported that they are shopping online more now than they did before the pandemic. However, while shopping online may be more eco-friendly compared to in-person shopping, there are many ways in which online shopping can be harmful to the environment.


Online shopping may seem like the more sustainable option, as it doesn’t require getting in the car and driving to the store. However, the cargo trucks delivering products have to make many stops, and as a result, can produce just as much, if not more, greenhouse gas emissions than shopping in-person would. A study in the Environmental Science and Technology Journal found that online retailers produced about 0.18 kilograms of carbon dioxide per item.

One way to combat this is to order online from local stores. The same study found that deliveries from local retailers produce only 0.07 kilograms of carbon dioxide per item, less than half than deliveries from strictly online retailers. 

The amount we buy from online retailers also has an impact on how much greenhouse gas emissions are produced. When ordering from large online retailers, such as Amazon, most people tend to buy only one or two products, but frequently. However, a more sustainable option would be to wait to buy many items at once, to have them delivered all in one trip. 

 Packaging is another way that online shopping can have consequences on the environment. A report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that only 14% of plastic packaging is recycled. The rest are sent to landfills, incinerators, or other places where they can pollute the environment. According to a 2019 study by Oceana, Amazon produced 465 million pounds of plastic packaging waste. This number is expected to have increased with the rise in online shopping.

The amount of returned products also plays a big role in the harm that online shopping does to the environment, even though it may seem inconsequential.  Packaging waste is a factor in this as well. As reported by Optoro, returns create five billion pounds of landfill waste and 15 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year in the United States. This is equivalent to the amount of trash produced by five million people in a year. Therefore, a sustainable choice would be to take caution in choosing which products to buy by reading the reviews and checking measurements. 

Buying many items at once helps with this issue, as it ensures that all your items are sent in one box. Although it is rather inconvenient, choosing the slowest delivery method is another sustainable option. Having more time allows companies to be more efficient in their shipment methods and consolidate packages. It also lessens the number of delivery trucks being sent out.

Another way to shop online sustainably is to shop from companies that use sustainable packaging. Taking some time to research businesses that use sustainable shipping and packaging methods isn’t difficult, and there are many greener alternatives out there for large retailers, such as Amazon.

However, many people are opposed to shopping from more sustainable companies because they tend to be less affordable. “I usually just buy what I need,” one BCA student shared. “Sometimes I forget to consider sustainable options because I just want to buy what I want, and buying sustainably is generally more expensive.”

While this is sometimes true, it isn’t always the case. An environmentally-friendly and affordable option available to online shoppers is buying from websites that sell second-hand items. eBay is a good online marketplace with a variety of second-hand products. Etsy is another good platform, which allows consumers to purchase handmade items from small businesses. Depop also allows users to purchase second-hand clothing from sellers as well.

The harm that online shopping has on the environment may seem like a problem that only the companies themselves can fix. However, as the consumer, small acts can play a big role in the fight to make online shopping more sustainable. If consumers are more conscientious of the impact their decisions have on the environment, then companies will follow suit.