7 Questions to Lower your Ecommerce Footprint

Ecommerce skyrocketed by more than 30% in 2020, fueled by COVID-19.  Fortunately, ecommerce can have a lower carbon footprint than in-store shopping, depending on how we shop.

Online vs. In-Store: Climate Benefits and Drawbacks

With online purchases, a single delivery vehicle can replace dozens — even hundreds — of customers driving to shop in-store. By some estimates, traveling to the store to pick up a single item can generate up to 24 times more CO2e than having it delivered.

Also, physical stores can require more energy to run than online stores, which can fit more products per square foot. Store lighting, heating, cooling, and employee commutes all add to a product’s carbon footprint. 

Ultimately, the footprint of an ecommerce purchase comes down to the emissions of the last mile, which is the last leg of transportation to get a product to your doorstep. Where the ecommerce footprint takes the biggest hit is with fast deliveries.

Many variables impact the environmental footprints of online and in-person shopping. That’s why it’s important to build an intuition for the choices that matter most. Next time you shop, ask yourself these seven questions to make sustainable spending second nature.

Question 1: Do I really need this item?

Yes: Keep reading
No: Skip checkout (and save money)

The most obvious way to reduce your spending footprint is to shop less. As consumers, we directly influence 65% of global emissions. One of the best ways to flex our collective power is to stop buying things we don’t need.

Still, material items can bring us joy and enrich our lives. Shopping more intentionally can reduce your personal emissions and help reshape our personal relationship with stuff.

When we keep the planet in mind, we shop less and save money. In fact, the average Commons user saves $3,300 a year once downloading the app – just from buying less!

Question 2: How soon do I need this item?

Right away: Shop in-person
No rush: Consider online

Next-day or 2-day delivery really drives up the emissions of ecommerce purchases. By waiting a few extra days, you can cut your delivery’s carbon footprint by up to 30%.

The faster a delivery, the less opportunity there is to take advantage of carbon efficiencies like filling trucks and taking more economical routes.

By opting for standard delivery, you’ll generate fewer emissions than expedited shipping or driving to the store. If you need a specific item last minute, do your best to walk, bike, or take public transportation to pick it up in person.

Question 3: How likely am I to return this item?

Fairly likely: Shop in-person
Not likely: Consider online

Customers return 25% of their online purchases, compared to 8% for in-store purchases, according to a 2021 study. Returns double each product’s transportation miles and generate 5.8 billion pounds of inventory waste each year in the U.S. alone.

While it might be convenient to buy the same shirt in different sizes and return the ones that don’t fit, it’s not a sustainable shopping habit. When you’re unsure about the size or color of an item, it’s usually best to visit the store and avoid the emissions from the inevitable miles of a return trip. 

Question 4: Can I easily pick up in person?

Yes: Consider in-store
No: Consider online

Most delivery fleets are still powered by fossil fuels. If you can visit a physical store along a route you drive regularly, like your daily commute you could reduce the emissions of that purchase. Even better, when you walk or bike to the store, you cut out last-mile emissions altogether.

It can be difficult to do all your shopping close to home if you don’t live in a city. In that case, investigate where your online deliveries are coming from. “Brick & click” purchases (ones made online and delivered by a local, physical store) generate fewer emissions on average than both in-person purchases and those made from strictly online vendors.

As a rule of thumb, prioritize online retailers with physical locations nearby to cut road mileage. If you need to drive to the store, knock out multiple errands on a single trip to cut your overall emissions. That’s called “trip-chaining.”

Question 5: Can I consolidate this purchase?

Yes: Bundle your buys
No: Keep reading

We tend to only buy a few items per purchase when we shop online. In contrast, we make more bulk buys when we take a trip to the store. 

Whether you’re shopping online or in-store, bundling everything you need in a single purchase reduces emissions substantially. Again, it comes down to the final mile: multiple trips, whether via your car or a delivery vehicle, adds up to a larger overall footprint. ‍

Here’s a tip to consolidate your purchases and shop more mindfully: Make a rule you’ll add items to your cart throughout the month, and only check out once monthly. Then, do your best to cut out trips to the physical store altogether. Studies show hybrid shopping habits rack up a larger carbon footprint than both online and in-person alone.

Question 6: Can I buy from a sustainable vendor?

Whether online or in-store, your purchases support a business and its business practices. Investigate the vendors you frequent and find out: What’s their stance on sustainability? Are they known for exploiting vulnerable communities or the planet? How transparent are their business practices?

If you’re not impressed, seek alternative vendors in your area or online. Making a short car trip to an eco-friendly vendor sends an important message about the businesses you’re willing to support.

Question 7: How can I minimize packaging?

If you’ve determined shopping online is your best option, be aware these purchases generally use more packaging than products bought in person. If there’s an option at checkout, choose plastic-free shipping and items packaged with lower-weight materials. If you can, limit online purchases of perishable and refrigerated goods, which require ice packs or thermal wrapping.

Heading to the store? Don’t forget your reusable bag!


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Commons team hiking
Thrive Market
Wholesaler of healthy food from leading organic brands
Marley Flueger
February 22, 2023
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