The world of e-commerce and online shopping has taken off. Takealot.com is South Africa’s biggest online store, with 12.5% of the total market share in 2017. But is this new way of shopping really better for the environment, and has it resulted in a reduction of carbon emissions?
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Centre for Transportation & Logistics have looked at the figures when it comes to various forms of shopping habits. In particular, they looked at the carbon footprint of different shopping processes for a toy in an urban area.
Research process and findings
They took into account the emissions from the full lifecycle of the toy, from manufacturing and delivery to distribution and consumption. The two major sources of carbon emissions came from the packaging process and the customer’s transport. If online shopping is able to cut out the customer transport phase, does that make it better?
The short answer is yes. Online stores have a small number of big distribution centres and often use more efficient modes of transport for the delivery of their goods. Compared to the carbon footprint created by a large number of retail stores and all of their customers’ cars, online shopping creates about half the emissions.
The MIT researchers found that with traditional retail stores, the majority of emissions come from customer transport first, then the store itself (through refrigeration units and power supply) and the packaging process of the goods third. Online shopping is quite different as the main sources of emissions are packaging first, then parcel delivery next, followed by freight transportation third.
“Online shopping tends to have a better environmental impact than traditional shopping when taking into account the entire buying process, other shopping consumer behaviours that include online shopping steps are not always environmentally better,” says Dimitri Weideli in his MIT research paper.
Online shopping is not always better though
“For a customer living in a suburban area, online shopping could be more appropriate, while this is less so for urban dwellers where traditional shopping could be more environmentally efficient,” he argues. This is because customers living further away from shops are more likely to research the products and order online, but in a city, customers are more likely to use public transport or walk to the shops, which mitigates their transport emissions.
Weideli also found that impatient online shoppers who request same-day delivery often create more carbon emissions than traditional shopping methods because of the freight delivery. “Both brick-and-mortar and online retailers could inform their customer better of the environmental impact of their choices (e.g. item bundling, item pickup, fast delivery) to mitigate its impact,” he says.
He argues that all retailers can improve the overall carbon footprints of their supply chains. Online stores can focus on improving the packaging and return processes, whereas traditional retailers can focus on creating online search aids and fast pickup options for consumers.
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