Cost of Living

How to make your online shopping less of an environmental or carbon footprint mess

Staying home this Christmas means many more people are turning to online delivery, and shipping all of those gifts means more cargo planes, trains and automobiles to get them to their destinations. But shopping online isn't always a less environmentally friendly option.

Can deliveries and the environment be friends?

Canada Post is expecting a significant increase in holiday packages this year due to COVID-19. But that doesn't have to mean a higher carbon footprint, according to logistics experts. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Staying home this Christmas means many more people are turning to online delivery. 

According to Canada Post, nearly half of Canadians plan to shop mostly or exclusively online this holiday season.

All of those gifts require cargo planes, trains and delivery trucks to get to their destinations. That, in turn, pumps out carbon emissions and adds to air pollution.

  • The Cost of Living ❤s money — how it makes (or breaks) us.
    Catch us Sundays on CBC Radio One at 12:00 p.m. (12:30 p.m. NT).

    We also repeat the following Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. in most provinces.

And then there's the packaging! So much time is spent breaking down boxes just to fit them in the recycling bin these days.

A Canada Post employee near Ottawa prepares a load of parcels for delivery. (Stu Mills/CBC)

But online shopping doesn't have to be disastrous for the environment. In fact, under the right circumstances, it can be a more eco-friendly option than traditional shopping.

CBC Radio's Cost of Living looked into what retailers, delivery companies and consumers can do to reduce their carbon footprint.

Local delivery is better

The first thing to know is that not all delivery is the same. 

A group of researchers from Radboud University in the Netherlands analyzed the supply chains of multiple business models in the U.K. and elsewhere in 2019.

Their conclusion? Ordering from a "brick and click" online operation is better than going to the store yourself, at least when it comes to fast-moving consumer goods, such as packaged foods, toiletries, dry goods and cosmetics. 

If you order something online from a supermarket, that is more likely to have a smaller [carbon] footprint.- Sadegh Shahmohammadi, Radboud University

What is a "brick and click," you might ask? It's a term that refers to a brick and mortar store that offers delivery service — the "click" —  in addition to the traditional "brick," referring to the physical location, which customers can still visit. 

Many grocery stores and supermarkets in Canada are offering this model right now.

"If you order something online from a supermarket, that is more likely to have a smaller [carbon] footprint compared to traditional shopping," said Sadegh Shahmohammadi, one of the authors of the study.

Part of why this model reduces carbon footprints is that fewer customers drive, individually, to the store.

A Metro grocery delivery van gets loaded in Outaouais, Que., for a 'brick and click' style order. (Jonathan Dupaul/Radio-Canada)

Ordering online and requesting delivery from a local store lets it consolidate multiple orders. The store can organize an optimized route for batch delivery through your neighbourhood, resulting in fewer carbon emissions than you and your neighbours each hopping into a car to make separate trips.

"Of course, there are other parameters, such as distances, the types of vehicles used, basket size," Shahmohammadi said.

The Carbon Footprint Foundation, which aims to educate the public on sustainability issues, provided Cost of Living with hypothetical numbers to back the idea that delivery can be a green option.

"If a delivery man drops 150 packages on a 100-kilometre road, they will emit 26 kilograms of carbon dioxide, which is around 170 grams for one package," said Emilia Kozikowska, a researcher with the foundation.

"But if we drive by car to a traditional store that is, for example, 10 kilometres from our house, we will add two kilograms of carbon dioxide, which is nearly 12 times more per package," she explained.

There is a catch, however. Reality does not always live up to this ideal when hired drivers have to make multiple delivery attempts for a single package.

A UPS worker searches for a package inside his truck. If no one is home to accept a delivery, trucks like this would need to return at a later date — meaning more carbon emissions. (David Ryder/Reuters)

These challenges often pop up with online marketplaces such as Amazon, which often ships, sources and delivers small items in multiple packages, with multiple drop-offs.

According to Shahmohammadi's research, driving to the store or using "brick and click" is still, on average, more eco-friendly than purchasing from what's called a "pure play" internet-only retailer.

Slower is better for the environment

The instant gratification of same-day delivery can be convenient and intoxicating for consumers.

But the logistics involved to make it happen can be quite intense —  both labour-wise and carbon-wise. 

"If we want things to be delivered within a half an hour, then obviously the logistics costs are going to be very high and  the carbon footprint is going to be very high," said Sharon Cullinane, professor of sustainable logistics at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

A Canada Post worker pulls packages through a facility in 2013. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

It is a similar principle to local stores being able to co-ordinate routes for "brick and click" delivery. If a retailer can take the time to determine the most efficient route and ship multiple items together, there are fewer carbon emissions per purchase.

"If you could wait to have the delivery in a week, then the company can combine everything that they're doing, and things can be co-ordinated better and consolidated better," Cullinane said.

Think twice before clicking

Another problem lies with just how easy that instant gratification is to access, with purchases only a few clicks away.

"People order things too quickly and with little consideration quite often, so when things are ordered, they're often sent back. And I think Black Friday is a particularly good instance of this," Cullinane explained. 

Buildings that accept packages for residents are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of parcels arriving each day. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"The number of goods that's ordered increases massively, but after Black Friday, about 40 per cent of what's ordered is sent back."

It's not uncommon for some consumers to order multiple items to try out, only to return the discarded items they don't want. These can often end up in landfills.

Many mattress-in-a-box companies, for example, offer a 100-night sleep guarantee. This can incentivize or encourage consumers to make duplicate orders from competing suppliers to see which they like best and then return the rest.

Choose vendors with accurate sizing

Consumers aren't entirely to blame for returning large amounts of unwanted goods, Cullinane said.

"The clothing industry has the worst reputation because people can order things to try on, and people are ordering in multiple sizes, multiple colours just because they can't actually make a good decision looking at the websites," she said. 

Vendors can reduce the amount of returns and landfill waste generated by their products by depicting them more accurately. 

That means posting better photos, offering more complete sizing information and being more honest and up-front with product descriptions.

In-person shopping experiences can avoid the problems of ill-fitting clothes purchased online. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Eliminating a purchase amount target for free delivery can also help reduce unwanted orders, Cullinane said.

"It would be best sometimes if they didn't push you to order a certain amount of products before you can get a free delivery," she said.

"It pushes people to buy more than they would so they can get over that line and then they don't actually want the things in the end." 

Try for companies with better packaging

In addition to improving product description, companies can also rethink how their stuff is packaged and marketed. 

Laundry detergent, for example, doesn't have to come in a large, heavy jug, said environmental scientist Sadegh Shahmohammadi.

Experts say heavy items, such as laundry soap, can be packaged differently to reduce the carbon footprint of shipping them. (Steve Helber/The Associated Press)

"It is possible to produce more concentrated products that could reduce the impact of transportation," he said. 

Other solutions, such as biodegradable packaging, are available, but many tend to be driven by consumer demand.

Use electric vehicles, bicycles ... or robots!

To help achieve its goal of being carbon neutral by 2040, e-commerce giant Amazon has ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from EV manufacturer Rivian, which could hit the roads as early as 2021.

In addition, experts say robots can help cut down on the impact of that last, "final mile" of delivery.

"FedEx and Amazon are already working on these kinds of robots, which will be transported to some neighbourhoods, and from there, robots will deliver to the house doors without any help of human," said Kozikowska of the Carbon Footprint Foundation.

It doesn't have to be that high-tech, either. 

During the pandemic, many mom-and-pop stores and restaurants have turned back to the old bike courier to help deliver their goods. 

WATCH | FedEx pilots e-cargo bikes to reduce emissions from delivering packages: 

FedEx pilots e-cargo bikes to reduce emissions from delivering packages

3 years ago
Duration 2:01

In the end, making online purchases a friendlier choice for your carbon emissions is possible, according to experts.

"Personally, I think online shopping is better than typical traditional shopping," Kozikowska said. 

"It depends on the human behaviour, and it all affects our carbon footprint. However, people are becoming more and more responsible not only for shopping, but also in their life choices."

Written by Falice Chin.

Click "listen" at the top of the page to hear this segment, or 
download the Cost of Living podcast.
The Cost of Living airs every week on CBC Radio One, Sundays at 12:00 p.m. (12:30 NT).