What’s better for the planet, in-store or online shopping?

The way people buy goods has changed dramatically in recent years. Today, online shopping has become the first-choice for many shoppers looking for clothes, personal care products, and even groceries. As e-commerce soars, many are questioning how this is impacting the environment. Is traditional brick-and-mortar shopping better for our planet? The answer isn’t so simple. 

At-home delivery is contributing to growing demand for freight movement, which is driving increased consumption of fossil fuels, especially diesel, and worsening air pollution. Cardboard boxes are overwhelming our waste management infrastructure. But it’s not just the shipping or the packaging that’s wreaking havoc on the planet. It’s also the products themselves.

Consumer products are the single largest source of environmental impact in our modern world, contributing to climate change and causing widespread natural resource depletion. They’re also filled with toxic chemicals that put our health at risk. 

Regardless of how consumers are shopping, companies need to address both the environmental and health impacts of their products – from manufacturing and transportation all the way to use and end of life. They also need to be more transparent with their customers about what the impacts are and what they’re doing to address them.

What are the impacts of the products we’re buying?

Even if a product arrives at your doorstep from an electric-powered delivery van, and is wrapped in biodegradable packaging, there’s no guarantee that the product itself is safe for the planet and for human health. 

Boma Brown-West, Director, Consumer Health

For example, during manufacturing, rain forests might have been cleared, or air or water could have been polluted. A product – or its packaging – might also contain toxic chemicals that put the planet and our health at risk. Consumers are ultimately responsible for 60% of emissions, and anywhere from 50-80% of total land, material and water use. On top of that, it’s estimated that 62% of chemicals used in consumer products are hazardous to humans and the environment.

We’re seeing more companies touting their products as “sustainable”, “environmentally friendly” or “clean”. But, these claims aren’t always backed by science. Finding reliable environmental and ingredient safety data on a product takes much too long, and often, the information is hard to verify—or worse, completely nonexistent.

This could be much easier – but retailers need to take action. Something that takes hours for shoppers to find could be available in seconds.

What should companies do to reduce the climate and chemical impacts of products?

First, companies need to take responsibility for their products’ environmental and health impacts – all the way from raw material sourcing down to end of life. This roadmap advises retailers, including e-commerce giants, to follow seven steps to achieve a competitive, sustainable edge in the marketplace: assess chemical and carbon footprints, set ambitious goals, align business operations to sustainability goals, engage product suppliers, help consumers make sustainable choices, measure and share progress publicly, and lead the industry forward on sustainability.

Second, companies need to start making climate and ingredient data accessible to shoppers. It’s time for shoppers to be able to see things such as which products are made with safer ingredients, use reusable packaging, conserve water during manufacturing, and are produced via  renewable energy. This e-commerce prototype models how companies can incorporate product sustainability data into the existing shopping experience, and it even includes a personal dashboard page that helps shoppers track  the climate and chemical impacts of their purchases over time. 

The typical online shopper is obsessed with research. Transparency about the environmental and health impacts of products gives consumers the information they need to compare products and make sustainable choices, something increasingly important to them. Capturing this growing – and often younger – consumer segment will be key to retailers vying for loyal, repeat customers.  

Companies have an opportunity this holiday season to provide shoppers with safer, more sustainable products. It’s time they take it.