Impact on the environmentAside from transport and delivery, other aspects of online shopping are crucial for the environment. The amounts or orders purchased and returned to retailers are responsible for one quarter of the carbon emissions of the e-commerce industry worldwide. Additionally, a high amount of these orders are not put back into the retail value chain, as returning and repacking would result in extra costs for the retailers. In 2020, it was estimated that over two billion tons of returned items ended up in landfills in the United States. Their transportation produced 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions that year.
Among the commodities traded online, apparel seemed to be among the most impactful on the environment. In 2020, a European study revealed that fashion items emitted the highest amount of CO2, although with differences among countries.
As Amazon's annual data shows, increasing transactions came along with higher amounts of emissions. In the case of leading online retailers like Amazon or eBay, this was mostly due to the distribution and transportation business segments. From the perspective of carbon footprint reduction, the use of energy sources for business operations has become more efficient. The fashion retailer and marketplace Zalando was a virtuous example, as the company managed to drive down the emissions per average order in the space of few years.
Packaging waste and environmental consciousnessBoth international e-commerce giants and smaller players are required to tackle the packaging issue. Globally, about 900 million kilograms of plastic packaging waste are produced in the e-commerce industry in a year. This might have induced companies to take action, as four in ten e-commerce decision-makers stated they would make plastic-free packaging available to their consumers. According to a U.S. survey, 42 percent of online shoppers would choose brands depending on sustainable packaging they might offer.
Even more than companies, online consumers are concerned about overpackaging and wish brands to be more responsible with regard to sustainability. Consumer awareness is combined with a certain upset about poor recycling activities, with young consumers appearing the most concerned. In the U.S., 35 percent of adults between 18 and 29 years old had a negative opinion about the environmental impact of Amazon. However, ethical principles will need to find a compromise with spending intentions: extra charges limited the interest in eco-friendly options for delivery services.