E-Commerce: Climate Friend or Foe?

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The holidays are a season of giving, and we at OEP love gifting our friends and loved ones special presents to brighten those winter blues. And in the age of social media and e-commerce, giving that perfect gift is only one click away. But with an increase of online shopping and shipping, we have to ask ourselves: is the digital department store an environmental friend or foe? Let’s explore!

We know that online holiday shopping is a trend that is growing exponentially. According to consumer data provider Statista, 18.8% of total U.S. retail sales in 2020 will be e-commerce sales (Coppola, 2020). That means that nearly one-fifth of all sales this holiday season will be made through the internet. Talk about sofa shopping!

With an increased consumption online, it’s important to know how this behavior trend impacts our environment. According to a Carnegie Mellon Study, online shopping may be the greener alternative due to transportation factors. When shopping online, purchases are typically delivered via a carrier who specializes in transportation logistics. Your package(s) arrive to your doorstep after spending some time in a vehicle with many other packages awaiting their arrival at homes in your neighborhood or region.

Now imagine instead of being delivered to your doorstep, you drove your vehicle to the store or warehouse where your purchases originated. Depending on where you live, it might take you quite a while to arrive to your destination, and not only would you need to make the trip to pick up your purchase but then you would need to make the trip home, emitting carbon all along the way. If you and all of your neighbors made this same trip, you would all be emitting carbon in your individual vehicles, multiplying emissions. When considering transportation, researchers at Carnegie Mellon found that as much as 65% of total emissions in the traditional retail model occur due to shopper transport (Swaney & Ordiz).

While online shopping reigns green in the realm of transportation, it can fall short when it comes to packaging. Many distributors package items using materials that have their own carbon footprint, such as plastics (Argyridou, 2009). If each item you purchase is individually packaged—or you choose to purchase items but do not group them into a single order—you multiply the footprint of your purchase.

Clearly, there are many factors to consider when it comes to online shopping, and we’ve only scratched the surface of their environmental implications. So, what can we do to ensure our gifting is green this holiday? Below is a list of tips for a sustainable season:

  1. Recycle or upcycle your gifts! Have a sweater that you haven’t worn in a while? Hankering for a craft in quarantine? Consider re-gifting or making your loved ones a gift this holiday season to lessen your environmental footprint.
  2. Shop local. Purchasing goods from local stores and local artisans can lessen transportation time and bolster your local economy.
  3. Look for online sellers who ship with environmentally friendly materials and/or are committed to reducing CO2 emissions.
  4. If possible, walk, bike, or bus to your local store to cut down on carbon emissions from your individual vehicle.

Putting one (or a few) of these practices in place will help cut down on your environmental footprint all the while show your loved ones that you care.

Wishing you a safe, healthy, and green holiday season!


Argyridou, A. (2009, October). The Environmental Impact of Online Shopping: Nitty-gritty. Retrieved December 16, 2020, from https://stanfordmag.org/contents/the-environmental-impact-of-online-shopping-nitty-gritty

Coppola, D. (2020, December 10). E-commerce holiday sales share in U.S. Retrieved December 16, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/283875/holiday-e-commerce-share-of-total-us-retail-e-commerce-sales/

Swaney, C., & Ordiz, E. (n.d.). March 3: Carnegie Mellon Study Finds Shopping Online Results in Less Environmental Impact. Retrieved December 16, 2020, from https://www.cmu.edu/news/archive/2009/March/march3_onlineshopping.shtml

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