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Online shopping could be better for the planet, but we need to stop returning so much

online shopping

Online shopping was meant to save on carbon emissions. Fewer cars driving to energy-sucking stores that send copious amounts of material to landfill with every display change. But with a growing habit to over order items in various sizes and return excess goods often free of charge, it could be that this new consumer habit is costing more than we think.

According to Gaia Discovery online shopping has the potential to be better for the environment than shopping in store, if only there weren’t so many sacrifices made to improve customer experience.

Consumer trends agree and show online shopping is on the rise, with the Australian Postal Corporation predicting one in 10 purchases will be made online by 2020. Powerful incentives such as free shipping, free returns and buy now, pay later are driving this “discernible and growing shift towards online channels,” the APC says. 

This is especially evident in the fashion industry, where online sales are now in their sixth consecutive year of double digit increases. In 2017 online fashion sales grew by 26.5 per cent in Australia, while in-store sales grew by just 1.5 per cent.

The APC points to increasingly “well-defined return options” as a key factor driving up these sales. Where once it may have been a gamble for shoppers to purchase the correctly sized pants or colour matched shoes, these simplified return avenues mean getting the wrong product isn’t such an issue anymore.

A recent Shopify report found “returns are the new normal,” with as many as 41 per cent of online shoppers purchasing products in a variety of sizes or styles with the express intention of returning the ill fitting iterations. The report also highlighted that people were 54 per cent more likely to shop with an online store if it offered free returns or exchanges. 

This may be a positive for customers, but it is seeing the sustainability of online shopping diminish. Particularly in instances where no one is home to sign for the parcel and it must be returned to the post office for another day or else picked up by the customer, or if extra materials must be used to wrap and re-package the unwanted items for their return.

Additionally, there is a pattern of customers wishing to try products on in store before making the purchase online. One study found this practice – driving to the store, testing a product, driving home to order online – almost doubled the carbon footprint of a simple online purchase. Now imagine if such a customer were to try on an item in store, make an online purchase, then return the item. 

So while shopping online may save on carbon emissions by lessening the amount of vehicles visiting physical stores, other habits may actually be negating these benefits in the end. To ensure your footprint is as low as possible, sustainability advocates advise consumers keep purchases purely digital by avoiding returns, steering away from testing things in store first, and being home for the delivery if necessary. 

Sustainability doesn’t start and end when the product is put up for sale they say. It goes right back up the supply chain to production and then forward to its potential for recycling.

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