E-Commerce and Environmental Sustainability: How Online Shopping May Be Harming the Environment

Consumers love online shopping and the speed and ease with which they are able to get the items they want. A report by KPMG, estimates that the “global online shopping arena” is worth about $1.9 trillion, and that number is only going to rise in the future. Online shopping has changed significantly in the past decade and with the rise of services such as Amazon Prime, consumers have become accustomed to getting their purchases within two days and, in some cases, the same day. However, all of this convenience may be quite costly to the environment, but they don’t have to be.

Environmental sustainability and profitability are usually positioned as adversaries or presented as incompatible, though this often isn’t the case. The reality is that more often than not, the same inefficiencies that are detrimental to the environment are also costly to the business. Eliminating these inefficiencies can help offset a business’ carbon footprint and reduce costs.

If we look at the main factors behind carbon inefficiencies in e-commerce, we can see that delivery and packaging are the biggest offenders. Interestingly, transportation in the United States has become a major climate issue, overtaking power plants in carbon emissions. The majority of the transportation problem is when items are transported from distribution centers to the doorsteps of consumers. In the world of logistics, this part of the item’s journey is called the “last-mile delivery,” although this can be a misnomer as it actually be several miles.


Prior to the e-commerce boom, transportation of goods was often a large scale delivery from distribution center to a retail store. Instead of delivery trucks of varying sizes going directly to each consumer’s house, they made fewer trips to brick and mortar retail stores. Different studies have been done on how to green the e-commerce revolution and plenty of the solutions begin with transportation.

Stop split shipments.

In an effort to get items to customers faster, businesses will often ship items in a single order separately, but this is unbelievably costly for the business and the environment. Split shipments require more delivery trips and increased use of packaging materials. By either ceasing split shipments or incentivizing customers to opt out of them, it can greatly reduce both carbon and logistics inefficiencies.

Invest in efficient packaging and save money.

The internet is rife with anecdotes about the wasteful ways items are packed and shipped. For instance, single package of ball point pens shipped in a box six sizes too big with copious amounts of protective air packaging. While these stories are amusing internet fodder, they create an unfathomable amount of waste and are costly to businesses. It is in the best interest for all parties for businesses to utilize efficient and environmentally friendly packaging and to also invest in supply chain logistics efficiency studies within their own companies.

Bring customers back into the store.

For brick and mortar businesses, there is the convenience of having an online and physical presence. Bring customers into your physical locations by making same-day in-store pickups easy. In this scenario, the customer has the benefit of shopping at home in a low stress and relaxing environment, but the immediate gratification of getting their item same day. In-store pickups eliminate packaging and shipping costs.

Use pickup locations instead of shipping or in-store pickups.

If you don’t have many or any retail locations, utilizing pickup locations can prove to be a hugely beneficial. The most obvious implementation of this idea is Amazon Lockers, where customers can have their items delivered to an Amazon Locker location where they pick up their deliveries whenever convenient for them. While most businesses don’t have the ability to invest in their own branded pickup locations, companies such as UPS are stepping in to fill that void. As e-commerce grows even more rapidly in the coming years, these pickup locations will become more commonplace.


As we have seen, while e-commerce can have a negative impact on the environment, businesses can choose to lessen that burden while also increasing supply chain efficiencies and their own revenues.

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