Online Warming : The Real Costs of Internet Shopping

Buying online is good for the planet, right? Less emission-heavy time spent driving and parking, less walking about in energy-hungry malls, less middleman profit sapping incomes for low-wage, third world workers. That’s what we like to think. But there is a dark side to internet shopping. And it’s us that is making it worse. By Jeremy Torr.


Singapore, February 7, 2019. One of the biggest attractions for online shopping is not the range, not instant availability, not even cost in many cases. It is often that you can send stuff  back easily.

“Keep Packing for Returns” is the standard internet box disclaimer.

Indeed, “returns are the New Normal,” says a recent Shopify Report that reveals some sobering statistics. A astonishing 40%-plus of online purchasers buy multiple sizes or models of items with the full intention of returning those that don’t suit. And almost 90% of all online customers have returned at least one purchase. Worse still, some regular buyers just buy stuff to pose with on social media or YouTube before returning it. And all this costs us in the long term.

Returns that bite

Courtesy Shopify

Courtesy Shopify

When you realise that currently, some 27% of clothing sales alone are made online, that adds up to a staggering potential number of return trips made by couriers just sending stuff back. And all of those trips are puffing out greenhouses gases.

Although the figures purely for returns are hard to pin down, if we use numbers from the 2015 MDPI report on transport emissions for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles (MHDVs – the ones used for courier deliveries), things don’t look good. In fact, the figures have probably ballooned in the three years since 2015, fuelled by the rapid increase of up to 30% in online shopping figures.

In 2015, despite only comprising 4.2% of the total vehicles on the road, MHDVs pumped out some 24.47 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2015 according to MDPI – that’s over 25% of total road transportation emissions. Extrapolate that back and the emissions just for returns (27% of 40% for clothing) is up 2.4 million tonnes of CO2. Add about 30% (the rate of internet shopping expansion) on to that for 2018 returns if you want to be up to date.

Also, amost every online-purchased parcel is delivered individually to a separate address, meaning much greater on-road MHDV mileage than if it was delivered to a shopping centre. In the past, (more delivery-efficient) trucks only needed to go to shopping malls or high street outlets, but today they are going to and fro from private addresses. So they are puffing greenhouse gas in the road outside your house. Twice, if you return the goods, as many buyers are becoming habituated to.

Sales-driven problems

Courtesy Shopify

Courtesy Shopify

Sadly, commerce is compounding the problem. As the Shopify report notes, “… the real cost driver is this: your customers are (often) buying from you with the intention of immediately returning some … items.” So, to make a dollar, the online retailers have to make returns easier, which they do. Which compounds that CO2 problem even further.

“Offering free returns is an incentive to buy,” says Shopify. “Free returns can lift conversion rates, as 71% of customers find that a restocking fee or shipping fee can prevent them from making a purchase.” Even more ominously, it notes that: “… a simple, transparent, and generous return policy can earn customer loyalty, and 72% of shoppers are willing to spend more and buy more frequently from brands that make the return experience simple.” So what does a sensible online retailer do? Makes returns even easier, obviously.

Add into this downward spiral of truck duplication and greenhouse gas production the fact that many returns are simply added to landfill, and there is a huge amount of waste produced by returns. Plus all online purchases come with packaging. That’s usually a premium, single-use (often plastic) shrink-wrapping, padding and boxing for each individual item, even if you use it for returns, you know where it will end up – not in China’s recycling factories any more, that’s for sure.

Delivery trucks might pretend to be organic, but they aren’t. Courtesy YouTube.

Delivery trucks might pretend to be organic, but they aren’t. Courtesy YouTube.

And although I don’t want to be too pessimistic, you can top all that desperate news off with the fact that over 8% of global electricity is estimated to be utilised by technology companies in their gigantic cloud computing and server farm centres. So if you take a step back and look at returns, deliveries, packaging, waste and IT emissions, the overall sales pitch for online shopping starts to look far less rosy.

Make a difference

But instead of grumbling, here’s a few things we can do:

  • Tell your friends about this article. Educate, educate

  • Watch this video

  • Don’t buy with returns in mind

  • Shop at people like Loop, HumanKind that avoid single use packaging

  • Group your purchases together to avoid multiple deliveries

And with luck, we will make online shopping as environmentally sustainable as visiting the local grocer or bread shop. But we need to start now.