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Opinion: Embracing the Sustainable Shopping Mindset

As online shopping continues to rise by double digits annually and sustainability remaining high on the agenda of most consumers and businesses, Bryan Cox asks can shopping online be less harmful to the environment than in-store shopping?

Most people’s immediate reaction to this question is of course not? Think about all the times you have felt guilty over the past 18 months when another delivery van pulling up outside your house and hoping the neighbours aren’t judging you!

There is something about seeing a steady stream of vans delivering small packages to your house that doesn’t sit right.  Online shopping often gets the blame as a large CO2 contributor, but it is the online retailer, the delivery company and the online shopper that need to act in a more responsible way to ensure CO2 emissions are reduced.

The Online Retailer
Online retailers need to engage in consumer research to find out exactly what consumers want, rather than assuming everybody wants everything yesterday! Often online retailers will offer next day delivery and free returns to entice customers to their sites, but if customers were provided with the average C02 emission associated with next day and standard delivery which would they choose?

In general, C02 emissions will be higher on a next day delivery option as the retailer cannot efficiently pack the truck before it leaves the depot. A Mexican grocery retailer, for example, recently offered a range of delivery slots and displayed their associated CO2 emissions associated with each.  In the test 72% of consumers opted for the greener options that involved lower emissions with a longer lead time.  This suggests that online retailers need to work harder advertising and promoting green options onsite.

RED C conducts a sustainability monitor which is publicly available every six months to our clients. One pf the key findings is that 58% of consumers in Ireland would like to live in a more sustainable way, but don’t know how.  This is where responsible, ethnical, and grown-up business needs to kick in.  Signposting green alternatives on websites is just one of many ways that will help consumers lead more sustainable lives. Best Secret an online fashion retailer from Germany, among others, uses the green leaf symbol which shows products that have been produced in a more sustainable way. This provides shoppers with additional information and allows them to live more sustainable lives.

The Delivery Companies
Delivery companies have been making strides over the past 10 years in terms of improving the environmental sustainability of their business, but change doesn’t come over night and many have been silently working towards ambitious targets unknown to their customers.

Some notable initiatives from delivery companies include An Post, which is working towards net carbon zero by 2030 and to have 2,000 electric delivery vehicles by 2022. It also plans to spend €100m on other sustainability initiatives by 2025.

Elsewhere, Deutsche Post DHL group is a long-standing partner of the UN and strongly support the 17 UN sustainable development goals. In the USA, meanwhile, UPS is seeking to reduce emissions by 12% by 2025 and works closely with local partners on green last mile delivery models and has set up the UPS foundation to support sustainable communities around the world

Delivery companies are increasingly likely to find it harder to win large contracts without a strong sustainability agenda as big business brings environmental concerns to the fore in the procurement process. This is where big change can happen for the better.

The Online Shopper

And then it comes down to you and me.  Consumers need help to live more sustainable lives. We need to stop expecting the consumer to embrace the green agenda when they have been slow to do so to date. It’s about little steps, small changes and the sense that everybody is contributing.  Here are some tips when it comes to sustainable shopping online.

Group your purchases: Rather than shopping online every day, aim to set a day and time each week for shopping online, much like you would do when going into town on a shopping trip.  This will cut down on delivery charges, but it will also help reduce CO2 emissions as you will receive more products in one delivery. Some retailers now offer pooled delivery days so you shop online as much as you want but you select the day you want your deliveries to arrive.

Avoid dual shopping trips:  A dual shopping trip involves two trips to purchase a product.  The first trip is visiting a real store and trying on clothes then going home and finding the same product online for cheaper which then needs to be delivered.  These two trips lead to two CO2 emission occasions.

So the question we asked was, “is online shopping be less harmful to the environment than in store shopping?” And the answer is yes, it can be.  Imagine a grocery store offering pooled delivery to customers rather than next day.  This grocery store can then fill up a truck, rather than do individual trips.  The delivery company then uses its 100% electric fleet meaning it is reducing its CO2 emissions to nearly zero.  The online shopper uses their favourites list of products that they know they will use, rather than dumping lots of food into the bin and generating more waste.

In this situation, everyone is playing their part and acting responsibly which results in lower CO2 emissions when compared to single trips to a grocery store.

The truth is online shopping can be less harmful to the environment than in store shopping but only if those in the supply chain act in a responsible and sustainable way.

Bryan Cox is a director of Red C Research & Marketing