How to shop online with the world in mind

Monday 15th June, 2020

It's 2020, and these days you'd be hard pressed to find a company not taking strides to lighten their carbon footprint. Lego bricks will phase out oil-based plastic by 2030. Penguin Publishing hopes to source 100% of their paper through sustainable means by the end of the year. So whether you're buying a Lego pirate set for your toddler, or a hardcover, definitive English translation of Don Quixote for your great uncle, you can almost guarantee the company's good intentions.

But once those bricks get boxed and that book gets bound, what happens? Chances are you ordered online, and you need the package sent over the river and through the woods and to grandmother's house, and that isn't a quick hop, skip, or jump.

Shopping online is not carbon free, considering the distances that packages must be shipped, and the creation of the packaging itself. But what can you, the consumer, do to improve your online shopping's effect on the environment?

Don't Rush

Whether it's called priority shipping, next-day delivery, or super-swift stork, faster shipping methods tend to increase energy waste. Expedited shipping means less efficient shipping, as carriers have to put your package on the earliest shipment rather than selecting the most efficient option.

A study by MIT's Center for Transportation and Logistics shows that speeding up your order can triple the carbon footprint compared to the output of standard freight transportation.

No one is that desperate to read about a bumbling knight from the 1600s anyway, so maybe Don should receive the standard treatment.

Bundle Bundle Bundle

It takes one tree (on average), to produce 151.6 12x12x12 inch cardboard boxes. That may sound like a lot of boxes, but consider number of boxes a single order can contain: that Lego set will contain a box within a box; any laptop or phone will be housed within a complex foundation of paper packaging complete with struts, impact dampeners, and maybe even its own personal coffee machine.

It may be surprising to hear, but packaging actually accounts for a larger environmental impact than transporting your parcel-by almost double, in fact.

And while pulp-based packaging can certainly be recycled, its production and its recycling both demand energy and create waste, and paper can only be recycled so many times until it ends up in a landfill, or (hopefully) in a compost bin. 

Bubble wrap and other shipping plastics are recyclable, but only in the same manner in which plastic bags are. They cannot go with your normal, curbside recyclables. You have to find a special collection point, usually located at grocery stores and large department stores, and drop them off.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do to prevent any of this waste in the first place is by bundling your orders, which puts multiple items into one large box as oppose to many small boxes.

If items have unique shipping dates, try and bundle them all to arrive at once, usually on the date the last item was due to arrive.

Avoid Returns

As easy as it has become to shop for clothes online, the need to return ill-fitting items creates a new problem. Like expedited shipping, returns are rarely sent in the most efficient manner. Whereas normal shipments can jump from warehouse to logistics center to its last-mile transport, returns require some extra steps.

As the US Postal Service's Inspector General says: reverse logistics is not just forward logistics backwards. Returns don't always go directly back to their origin point. They also report that individuals are three times more likely to return online purchases than in-store purchases, with an average return rate of 30%, which goes up for items like clothes and shoes.

This means that 30% of the time, a shipment will create at least twice the necessary carbon footprint. And if you really want that shirt, and order it again in the correct size, you will have created three times the carbon footprint.

There is a workaround, though. If you purchase directly from a brick-and-mortar retailer's site, you can avoid creating excess waste by returning products directly to the retailer. US stores like Walmart and Kohl's offer this feature in their returns process. Making the effort to return goods in-person reduces packaging and freight, as the goods can be returned en masse, or put directly on shelves.

Shop Lite

Most importantly, the key to sustainable shopping is keep it simple. Asking, do I really need this? and will it bring me joy? are the first things you should consider when shopping online or in person. As someone who's moved apartments six times in the last two years, I can tell you firsthand that less is more. With each move I find shoes I thought I had lost, shirts I have never worn, and even long forgotten food, which finally explains why the pantry has that smell.

What I learn each time, is how little I actually need to be happy, and how wasteful I can be. While shopping sustainably can decrease my impact on the world, the single most effective effort is choosing to consume less.

This mantra is often lost in an era where one can order above-ground pools and a week's groceries with the click of a button. Without tangible feedback, like trying to lug that pool from the store to your truck, driving it to your yard, dragging it through your garden, and thinking the whole time why am I doing this?, one tends to forget the real value of material things.

I did not set out to disguise a tenant of the communist manifesto in this blog. I won't urge you to throw away all worldly possessions, join a convent, and pledge yourself to a life of eco-friendly worship.

Instead, I just recommend that you pause before tapping that place order button, and ask yourself if it's worth it.

And, don't forget, Things to Get Me is where you can ensure you only get the things you really want & avoid all those returns.

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