Although it facilitates access to products, online commerce also has an impact on the environment: from the waste generated by packaging to the carbon footprint of shipments. Credit: Claudio Schwarz Purzlbaum.

  • Tungsteno

Online shopping, friend or foe of the environment?

The definitive takeoff of e-commerce, on the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, faces one last hurdle: gaining the trust of consumers who are increasingly committed to the environmental impact of their purchases. Packaging, and the ecological footprint of the delivery, are the weakest points of online sales to become a greener alternative to traditional purchases.


The pandemic has accelerated the expansion of e-commerce, but at the same time it has also changed the consumer's perspective of local and neighbourhood shops. Will the current health crisis serve as a lever to boost a system of purposeful consumption as opposed to mass consumption? In fact, there is already an online consumer profile that prioritises and considers the environmental effects of their purchases: the eco-selective e-shopper, as Seur's E-shopper Barometer calls them, who is willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products and services.

We are buying more and more and we expect to receive our orders in less time. The current average parcel delivery rate in Spain is more than a million per day, compared to 125,000 parcels per day five years ago, according to data from UNO Logistica, the association of leading delivery companies. And future forecasts are along the same lines: in the United States alone, 100 million packages per day will be delivered by 2026. Delivery logistics is therefore, at this point, a key part of making online commerce more sustainable. With forecasts predicting that the number of orders will double in the next decade, it is imperative to develop a model that allows for greater storage capacity and for transport with larger, more efficient vehicles to reduce the number of delivery trips required.


One of the alternatives to reduce the impact of the distribution of online purchases is to unify the collection points. For example with the smart locker systems. Credit: Correos.


The impact of delivery


Apart from the transport of consignments, the consumer's own decisions also make a difference at different stages of the process. According to the Spanish Association of Distribution, Self-Service and Supermarket Companies (Asedas), there are more than 16 million people in Spanish cities who travel to shops on average 16 times a month, either on foot, by bicycle, by public transport or in their own vehicle. If half of these purchases in physical shops were made online, these journeys by various means of transport would be concentrated in delivery vehicles, which could clog up the traffic in cities such as Madrid or Barcelona. But shopping in local shops, in addition to reducing the carbon footprint of digital commerce, also helps to moderate the number of items consumed, according to a study by Radboud University (Netherlands).

In this regard, initiatives are emerging to combine new digital consumption habits and awareness of the distance factor. Such is the case of virtual shopping centres, which bring together companies and businesses in the same municipality or region to facilitate the online purchase of products closer to the consumer. One example is Buylevard, a platform that brings together more than 45 online shops in a single application, saving the user from having to download a separate app for each of these establishments. Other options include the creation of exclusive logistics centres for these online purchases, seeking to optimise processes and make them more sustainable.

But as an active part of a more sustainable purchasing process, the consumer can also go to a collection point to pick up their package. In this vein, for example, are the smart locker systems already in place at Amazon, Correos (Post Office) or the transport company SEUR, which has managed to reduce the climate impact associated with home delivery by an average of 63%.


It is necessary to consolidate a more responsible consumption model and a more efficient product design, which takes into account new delivery systems, such as drones or robots. Credit: JD.


The packaging problem


The opportunities to optimise the online shopping process, however, do not end when the order is in the hands of the recipient. Managing e-commerce packaging has become a major challenge in countries such as the United States, where it accounts for 30% of municipal solid waste, according to the country's Environmental Protection Agency. At the same time, the future of packaging will also have to adapt to new, more automated delivery methods, such as the use of drones or unmanned vehicles that will arrive in the coming decades, and which will require parcel delivery to evolve to allow for these outdoor deliveries. The consumer could also play an active role in waste management if initiatives are put in place such as that of the Chinese delivery company JD, which offers customers the option of returning the packaging boxes to the delivery company for re-use and recycling.

This move towards more sustainable transactions also points to another trend that, according to researchers May López and Elena Búlmer in the report Sustainability and Covid-19, must be strengthened in the future in order to reduce by 50% the total greenhouse gas emissions generated by online commerce: the circular economy. On the consumer side, this means buying and consuming with purpose and extending the useful life of products as much as possible. And from the business side, thinking about products with an efficient design to optimise transport and production. Redesigning recycling processes so that they are more efficient and consume less energy is also among the conclusions of the researchers to turn e-commerce into a true friend of the environment.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

  • Sustainability
  • Emissions
  • Environment

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