What Does Online Shopping During Lockdown Mean for the Environment?

Shopping from the comfort of our homes may be the go-to therapy for many during lockdown. But between plastic packaging, carbon emissions and returns headed straight for landfill, what is the cost of this new way of consuming? Ethical fashion writer Ruth MacGlip investigates. 

For many of us, the stress of the pandemic combined with the monotony of lockdown has stirred up a perfect storm for fast fashion retail therapy. 

According to Mckinsey’s Coronavirus update on The State of Fashion 2020 report, more than 65% of European and US consumers expect to decrease their overall spending on apparel, but expect to spend more via online and social channels during the Covid-19 outbreak.

It’s no surprise, then, that struggling retails have been quick to capitalise on this increased social media engagement to persuade shoppers to part with their diminishing cash for a socially-distanced mood boost. In another survey, Izea found that 26% of US consumers are researching new products online more than they did before Coronavirus. As consumers have more time to buy, it appears that small uplifting acts like the adrenaline rush of clothes shopping are helping many cling onto a sense of reality. 

What’s more, 45% of these shoppers have gone on to purchase ‘non-essential’ items, such as fashion products, during the lockdown. According to circular economy expert Lynn Wilson, categories like athleisure and nightwear are on the rise. Lynn puts down to the nature of these items as ‘essential luxuries’, as well as more generally, the optimism of shoppers still investing in clothing for future post-lockdown experiences. Meanwhile, second-hand shopping platforms like Depop are also seeing more and more users utilising the income opportunity of their working-from-home wardrobe clearouts. But what is the environmental cost of this newfound obsession with online shopping and selling? From carbon emissions to plastic packaging, could such a switch in consumption habits be problematic for the planet?

GreenStory, a Canadian firm which specialises in measuring and reporting on the environmental footprint of sustainable businesses, made some fascinating discoveries on the impact of e-commerce during their research for ThredUp’s fashion footprint calculator. “Online shopping is definitely more eco-friendly than brick-and-mortar shopping,” argues Navodit Babel, GreenStory’s co-founder. The main cause of this chasm is the emissions produced from the customer driving to the store. The energy used to power a retail outlet also has an impact on the sustainability of physical shopping.

Babel goes on, however, to explain that one key factor missing from this analysis is the impact of returns. According to GreenStory’s studies, only 6-8% of clothing items are returned when purchased from a physical store, compared to 30% of online orders. This is due to factors such as multiple sizes and styles being ordered to try on at home, and the convenience of postal returns versus trips to a shopping mall or high street. A shocking 20% of these online returns end up in landfill because they are unable to be resold by the retailer. In addition, the popularity of express shipping options such as next day delivery has the potential for increasing carbon emissions. This is because air freight produces around three times more emissions than maritime or road shipping. 

This research is furthered by a self-audit carried out by the world’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer, Walmart. They found that last-mile delivery and excess packaging were major contributors to the environmental impact of online shopping: “The e-commerce channel, on average, tends to produce more emissions per item for three reasons: e-commerce requires additional packaging, customers purchase fewer items per online transaction, and multi-item orders often result in multiple deliveries.”

As we are still in the peak of the pandemic, limited research can be done on the impact of a potential increase in online shopping during lockdown. Beyond carbon emissions, other environmental impacts may be experienced in the long term, such as a rise in textile waste going to landfill when re-opened stores struggle to shift last season’s stock. Could we suffer a new rampage of mass discounting, or a new wave of clothes burning scandals?

According to Lynn Wilson, the ways in which we access clothing as consumers will also change going forward. “Will we ever feel comfortable shopping on the high street again?” she asks, while suggesting new systems like rental, leasing, resale and subscription models as alternatives. “Can we use this time to reflect on what we need, what we don’t need, and what we really want fashion to do for us?”

Meanwhile, environmental psychologist Lee Chambers emphasises the need to rethink our approach to therapy shopping, even on the other side of lockdown. He highlights that people who are anxious over the lack of control of their external environment often turn to shopping as a coping mechanism, leveraging the hit of dopamine from purchasing something new and non-essential. But Lee claims “there is barely any benefit to utilising purchasing to boost our mood,” and suggests instead that we seek satisfaction from creating, rather than consuming.

Clearly, the post-pandemic solution we need lies in changing our shopping habits both on and offline. The key, it seems, is to empower people to think differently about the value of their consumption. We refer to ourselves as consumers, but could we redefine our value as creators, or better, citizens? As the fashion conveyor belt inevitably slows and shifts, one thing is clear – shopping will never be the same again.


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