I recently read about a report on the US retail market that stated that the pandemic has hastened the move away from physical 'brick and mortar' stores by around 5 years. I couldn't find exactly the same data for Australia, but I imagine in many places, it would be a comparable scenario. This has a bunch of downsides, but a major one is the environmental impact of online shopping.
It's not surprising that there has been a shift to online shopping during a pandemic that has seen so many physical stores shut as part of lockdowns all around the country and the world. After all, people still need things and even if there is a physical store open that sells that thing you need, you might not be in a position to go and get it. That is completely understandable, and we should be grateful that it is an option available to us. But the main issue with online shopping — both before and since the pandemic — isn't that we are doing it, it's how we are doing it.
Online shopping is that does two things with environmental consequences: 1) it encourages smaller more frequent purchases and 2) it can encourage overconsumption. Let's look at those in turn.
The smaller, more frequent purchases issue appears to be the main thing that tips online shopping over the edge environmentally because of packaging and delivery. When we physically shop, we typically buy multiple items at a time, and we don't have the need for multiple boxes and packaging material for each of the things we buy. All online orders require some form of packaging and, even if you buy multiple items from one site, they may still come from different retailers in different locations and be packaged, and sometimes shipped, separately.
It is often one of the major ecommerce sites that we are shepherded to when we are looking for something online. Those sites, with their established infrastructure and sheer size, make products incredibly price competitive, but more often than not they will be sourced and made overseas. The direct effect is the fuel/delivery impact and the indirect effect is that we forego an opportunity to support a local retailer.
The overconsumption aspect has two sides to it — one seems to be boredom and impulsivity and the other is low cost — a dangerous combination. A visit to any of the major fast fashion ecommerce sites will show you what I mean. Someone is bored, thinking they might just look for a new pair of sunglasses, for example, and while they are there they can't help but see that they can get a new handbag for $2 — why not?!
Sadly, these items at low cost are typically equally low quality, so will likely just end up in landfill. We know that the costs of items like that go beyond financial, and it is the social and environment costs that are most unsustainable and troubling. The documentary The True Cost is a good starting point for those wishing to learn more about the human and environmental cost of fast fashion.
Does this mean you should stop online shopping completely? No. This is all just to say, like everything, be mindful. If you need it, you need it, but remember to:
shop consciously and ethically
shop locally if you can
favour smaller, independent retailers over the big ecommerce sites
choose ‘click and collect’ rather than delivery
and as soon as we can, let's get back to supporting our local, physical shops.
Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.