Cross Country Checkup

Cyber Monday deals may be fuelling carbon emissions: experts

The way that people currently shop online — by opting for same- or next-day delivery, for example — is doing more harm than good, experts say.

Fast shipping options, free returns have a negative effect on environment

A mail carrier wearing a Santa hat carries packages to homes in Vancouver. Experts say that consumers can make simple changes to their online orders in order to reduce their carbon footprint. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

With the holidays approaching, Canadians are turning to the web to stock up on presents — but experts warn that online shopping deals and fast shipping may be increasing carbon emissions.

Stores opened their doors — and online shopping carts — for Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales this year as thousands in British Columbia recover from devastating floods that have many considering the impact of climate change on parts of the country. 

Two-thirds of Canadians believe there is conclusive or solid data that the Earth is warming, according to a recent survey by Abacus Data that polled 2,200 Canadians in October.

And yet, more than 40 per cent of respondents to an August survey from the Retail Council of Canada, conducted by Leger, said they planned to take advantage of Black Friday deals. Experts say that consumption is a driving force behind climate change.

That survey of 2,500 Canadians also found that a third of shoppers polled are expected to fill virtual shopping carts for their holiday shopping this year.

Those wanting to reduce their carbon footprint while shopping online should use standard shipping and minimize the number of returns they make. (Yulia Grigoryeva/Shutterstock)

But the way that people currently shop online — by opting for same- or next-day delivery, for example — is doing more harm than good, experts say.

"When a consumer opts for fast delivery, businesses and delivery companies don't necessarily have the time to ensure that trucks leave fully loaded or along a well-planned route," said Maddy Ewing, senior analyst on transportation and urban solutions at the Pembina Institute.

"In some cases, we actually also see fast delivery, forcing a shift to higher-emitting modes of travel like air."

Clothing returns particularly harmful, says expert

Protestors with the climate action group Extinction Rebellion blocked 13 Amazon warehouses in the U.K. on Friday as the retailer launched its pre-holiday sales. The group said the move was an effort to bring attention to the alleged exploitation of workers and also the company's wasteful business practices, according to the BBC.

While emissions from the delivery of goods make up a portion of online ordering, consumer habits are an additional consideration.

Sharon Cullinane, professor of sustainable logistics at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, says that many online shoppers will purchase multiple sizes of one article of clothing and plan to return the ill-fitting garments.

Research by Cullinane in 2017 suggests that on average a quarter of clothing purchases made online are returned. That number increases to 50 per cent for high-fashion items.

WATCH | Supply issues have retailers pulling back on Black Friday deals: 

Black Friday may see fewer deals, bigger focus on local

6 months ago
Duration 2:03
Canadians eager for Black Friday shopping this year may find fewer deals as retailers pull back on deep discounts because of supply concerns, while some are pushing for consumers to steer their holiday shopping toward local retailers.

Not only do such returns carry a carbon footprint by adding additional shipments to delivery companies, many returned purchases do not make their way back to a retailer's shelves — and in some cases, they are destroyed instead of being resold. 

Retailers often offer free returns for their products sold online, and many use third-party companies to collect and process returns adding complication to the shipping chain.

"Think before you buy," Cullinane told Cross Country Checkup. "Don't order the things that you don't particularly want [and] try and look at the information on the website so that you're not ordering something that surprises you when it arrives."

Tips to shrink your holiday shopping carbon footprint

Shopping online has the potential to reduce our impact on the climate by consolidating deliveries and reducing the number of personal vehicles travelling to and from shops, experts say.

Ewing and Cullinane have these suggestions for consumers who are about to press the checkout button.

Choose standard rather than expedited shipping. That gives retailers and delivery services the opportunity to consolidate shipments so drivers deliver more packages in a smaller area, requiring less driving.

"We're kind of seeing a bit of a race to the bottom where a number of different online retailers are kind of competing to get goods to consumers as fast as possible," said Ewing.

"While that's great for a consumer, it means that they're kind of not necessarily engaging in best practices with their operations."

Shoppers walk past a shop offering Black Friday deals on Nov. 26, 2021. Experts say that people can make their in-store shopping more environmentally friendly by walking, travelling by bike or taking public transportation to stores. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Cullinane recommends buying multiple products to ensure as few individual shipments as possible. 

Buying from companies that ship locally, rather than from international warehouses, can also play a role in reducing the carbon footprint of online shopping.

And if you're not ready to give up a trip to the mall or local mom-and-pop shop, she recommends reconsidering transportation.

"If everybody caught a bus to the shops, it would be an awful lot more environmentally friendly than if people drive," said Cullinane.


Written by Jason Vermes with files from Steve Howard.

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