When the pandemic forced us to spend more time indoors, avoiding unnecessary excursions for more than a year, it had an unexpected benefit for the environment. Scientific evidence showed lower rates of environmental degradation in many regions, with air quality improving considerably due to lower emissions.
Even as our lifestyles move back towards normal, Covid-19 might have further long-term beneficial effects for our environment in another unusual area. With the move towards e-commerce and subsequent adjustments that physical retailers have been forced to make, shopping might just have become more sustainable.
But for that to happen, does it really matter whether consumers shop online or in-store?
The case for online efficiency
Well before the annus horribilis of 2020, a lot of people had already been shopping online. But a survey by UNCTAD concluded that the pandemic definitely had a significant impact on encouraging consumers to shift more of their activity towards e-commerce platforms.
For those longtime online shoppers, increased purchase diversity was a pattern. They demonstrated a greater willingness to buy products online that previously would’ve been tested or examined in-store.
Sustainability might not have been the top priority for online shoppers during the pandemic. But studies have indicated that online shopping carries half the carbon footprint of its traditional counterpart. A physical store requires maintenance and energy consumption compared to the back-end warehouses used by online retailers.
Online shoppers also tend to be less finicky about the packaging. You can focus on efficiency with an automated machine for folding boxes, eliminating the fancy wrappers that retail stores so often use to jazz up the consumer experience. Materials like cardboard and even bubble wrap are mostly recyclable, and the latter can even be replaced with shredded paper byproducts.
Now that the pandemic has broken down resistance to online shopping and given most people a taste of its benefits, the volume doesn’t seem likely to die down. More consumers will click to purchase more types of products, and businesses offering online purchase options can be more sustainable this way.
The argument for physical stores
However, things aren’t actually so clear-cut in favor of the e-commerce platforms. Deloitte’s 2016 report found that brick-and-mortar commerce could still be up to 60% more sustainable than its online counterpart.
One key factor cited in this study was the rate of returned merchandise for online channels. The main selling point of e-commerce is convenience, and retailers in the virtual realm try to win over consumers by making everything effortless. That includes the promise of hassle-free, no-questions-asked returns, leading to increased transport costs and product degradation.
Another major reason why physical stores could prove more eco-friendly has to do with transportation and emissions on the fulfillment side.
People who shop in-store tend to do so as part of trips they’re already making. They chain supply runs, take public transportation, or drop by malls on the way to or from work. All of these things mean that there’s little to no added emissions cost involved in visiting a physical store.
By contrast, online shoppers might place orders for a few items at a time as the need or impulse arises. This lack of consolidation leads to inefficiency in the final mile, as more trips are made from the warehouse and more packaging required for individual items.
Encouraging green behaviors
These studies might come to contrasting conclusions, but the conflict really stems from our assumptions about consumer behavior.
The ideal consumer will place a single online order for everything they need in a given period, recycle all the packaging, and never return anything. If any other needs come up, they buy them from local stores along their daily routes.
But we can’t count on everybody to model this ideal behavior all the time. And businesses know better. After all, it’s in their best interest to be experts at nudging consumers towards the desired behavior.
Online shoppers have a right to return merchandise, but merchants can subject returns to more stringent qualifications or offer incentives to those that keep everything. Their order management systems can be improved to allow for amendments after placing an order, which helps consumers consolidate purchases if they want to add new items. Increasing the cost of same-day or next-day delivery also encourages consolidation.
Store-based outfits should focus on the most accessible locations, especially if they offer online ordering and store pick-up options. When operating through both channels, have a price matching policy to discourage consumers from placing multiple orders searching for the best bargain.
The call is for businesses to strive for sustainability by using their influence on consumers for the good of the planet. Online and physical store operations have unique advantages, and both can view this as an opportunity to take green practices even further.