The Unexpected Ways Your Online Shopping Affects the Planet

The Unexpected Ways Your Online Shopping Affects the Planet

Emily Newton 13/12/2023
The Unexpected Ways Your Online Shopping Affects the Planet

Online shopping is quick, easy and incredibly convenient.

Have you ever paused to consider how your digital cart impacts the planet? While it’s clear that this mode of shopping saves you a trip to the store, its environmental effect is less visible but significant.

From the energy that powers online platforms to the packaging and transportation of your purchases, every click and order contributes to a larger environmental footprint. Here are lesser-known ways your online shopping habits affect the environment.

1. Fast Fashion and Landfills

Online shopping has transformed the clothing industry, notably accelerating the fast fashion trend. With one in seven sales now made online, the convenience and speed of purchasing clothing have never been greater. However, this ease of access contributes to increased consumption and, consequently, a surge in clothing waste.

Fast fashion, with its rapid production and turnover of inexpensive, trend-driven clothing, often results in shoppers quickly discarding garments. This cycle significantly impacts the environment, as manufacturers produce vast amounts of water and energy and discarded clothing contributes to landfill growth.

2. Energy Consumption in Data Centres

Packed with servers, data centres work tirelessly to keep e-commerce platforms running smoothly. However, they consume a staggering amount of energy. The constant data processing, cooling systems and server maintenance mean these centres can use as much energy as a small town.

Major e-commerce companies are investing in solar and wind energy to power their data centres, reducing reliance on traditional, non-renewable energy sources. This shift cuts down carbon emissions and sets a new standard in the industry for environmental responsibility.

3. Carbon Footprint of Deliveries

As the convenience of online shopping continues to attract more consumers, the number of delivery vehicles on the roads has increased dramatically. These vehicles — which often use fossil fuels — emit carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.

Moreover, experts predict urban deliveries could emit 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030 if authorities don’t intervene. This figure highlights the urgent need for innovative solutions in the delivery sector.

The potential for change is immense. Think electric vehicles, optimised delivery routes and drone deliveries. These solutions could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of various online shopping habits.

4. The Effect on Local Wildlife

Extensive warehousing and distribution centres, while crucial for online shopping, significantly disrupt local ecosystems. The construction of these vast facilities leads to habitat loss, affecting wildlife such as birds, small mammals and insects.

Increased traffic and noise pollution further disturb local fauna, altering behaviours like migration and breeding. Additionally, these centres can change local water drainage patterns, impacting aquatic and terrestrial life. The expansion of these warehouses thus poses a considerable challenge to the balance of local ecosystems.

5. Packaging Waste

The rise of online shopping has led to an overuse of packaging materials, with items in plastic and cardboard layers contributing significantly to waste. The production of these materials is resource-intensive, involving high water, energy and fossil fuel usage.

It increases greenhouse gas emissions and drains natural resources. Further, the disposal challenge is stark, as much of this packaging — particularly plastic — ends up in landfills or as litter, taking centuries to decompose and releasing harmful substances.

On a positive note, developing sustainable plastic barrier technology is a game-changer. It uses 22% less fossil fuel in production compared to traditional plastics and is fully recyclable. This innovation reduces the environmental footprint of packaging in online shopping, offering a more resource-efficient production process.

6. Increased Air and Noise Pollution

E-commerce has increased the number of delivery vehicles on the roads, contributing significantly to air and noise pollution. These trucks emit pollutants — like nitrogen oxides and particulate matter — worsening air quality.

It is particularly concerning in urban areas, where the concentration of delivery traffic is higher. The resultant air pollution poses health risks to residents, contributing to respiratory problems and other health issues.

Additionally, there’s a significant association between the activity of warehouses and distribution centres and increased air pollution, noise levels and traffic collisions. The high volume of vehicle movement around these facilities exacerbates these issues, highlighting the need for more sustainable logistics and delivery systems. 

7. Resource Intensive Products

The convenience of online shopping has inadvertently boosted the demand for resource-intensive products, particularly electronics and trendy gadgets. Items — like smartphones and tech accessories — require extensive resources for production, including rare metals, plastics and significant energy.

The environmental cost is substantial, with the mining for necessary materials leading to habitat destruction, water pollution and high greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, these gadgets' brief life spans and rapid replacement intensify resource use and waste generation.

Recycling offers a vital counterbalance to these environmental impacts. For instance, recycling 30 to 40 mobile phones can recover one gram of gold, emphasising the importance of effective reprocessing programmes.

8. Water Usage in Product Manufacturing

Many shoppers need to pay more attention to the water footprint of online purchases and its environmental impact. For example, clothing requires significant amounts of water during manufacturing. The fashion industry uses over 1.5 trillion litres of water annually, accounting for 10% of global pollution.

Thankfully, some initiatives reduce water use in manufacturing. In the textile sector, some companies adopt water-saving technologies — like closed-loop water systems — which recycle water in dyeing and treatment processes.

9. The Overlooked Impact of Returns

The environmental impact of returning online purchases is a significant but often overlooked issue. In the U.S., 15%-30% of online sales are returns. This high rate has a substantial environmental cost — like additional transportation — leading to increased carbon emissions from delivery vehicles.

Moreover, handling returns involves repackaging and sometimes discarding products that vendors can’t resell, leading to additional waste. This trash includes the products themselves and packaging materials, further contributing to environmental degradation.

10. Indirect Deforestation

The surge in demand for certain products contributes to deforestation and other ecological impacts. Commodities — like palm oil, used in numerous consumer goods — have led to widespread deforestation, particularly in tropical regions, to accommodate palm plantations.

It results in the loss of trees, severely impacts biodiversity, disrupts ecosystems and accelerates climate change. The extraction of raw materials — including timber and minerals — worsens this issue, leading to habitat destruction and affecting indigenous communities.

Clicking Towards a Greener Future

Awareness of how online shopping habits impact the environment is crucial. Every purchase makes a ripple effect, extending beyond the immediate convenience it offers. The actual cost of these choices often includes increased carbon emissions, packaging waste and resource depletion.

Shoppers can collectively reduce this impact by being more mindful and making environmentally conscious decisions. Opting for products with sustainable packaging, supporting eco-friendly brands and considering the necessity of each purchase are steps in the right direction.

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Emily Newton

Science & Tech Expert

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized. She is a science and technology journalist with over three years covering industry trends and research. 

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