Is it better for the environment to buy your Christmas gifts online or from a shop?

Christmas presents

The year’s biggest season for shopping has begun.

The Australian Retailers Association is forecasting Christmas shoppers will spend almost $67 billion on presents, food and other purchases between the start of November and Christmas Eve.

More people are shopping online than ever with 82 per cent – or 9.4 million households – ordering goods on the web in 2022, according to Australia Post’s latest ecommerce industry report.

November is Australia Post’s busiest month for deliveries, with the postal service expecting 6 million households to make an online purchase in this month alone.

In the report, Australia Post managing director Paul Graham said Australians had returned to physical shopping in “strong numbers” after pandemic restrictions.

“However, it’s clear that the fundamental shifts in the way we live, work and shop that occurred during the pandemic are here to stay,” he said.

But have you ever wondered whether it’s better for the environment to shop online or go to a store?

A computer surrounded by Christmas decorations
Australia Post’s report found an average of 5.6 million households shopped online every month in 2022. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Research out of the US by the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics at Cambridge University concluded traditional instore shopping generated twice the environmental impact as online shopping.

It mainly came down to the emissions generated by individual shoppers using their private cars to get to and from stores as opposed to parcel delivery companies which use an optimised delivery process.

The study also found maintaining a website generated significantly fewer emissions than the energy used in a physical retail store.

“This research might suggest that online shopping is the silver-bullet solution for the environmentally conscious consumer, but online shopping doesn’t come without its fair share of environmental problems,” said Macquarie Business School’s chair of ethics, Jana Bowden.

Christmas shoppers at Chermside shopping centre on Brisbane's northside
A study in the US found shopping centres and stores had twice the carbon footprint of online retailers. (ABC News: Rachel McGhee)

Impatient shoppers

Online shopping can lose points when consumers demand same-day delivery.

Prof. Bowden said shoppers had become accustomed to what she described as the “Veruca Salt ‘I want it now’ effect”.

“We are living in an era of the impatient shopper, conditioned in large part by retail giants like Amazon that offer expedited shipping options at the check-out,” she said.

“Customers have become accustomed to getting their purchases delivered, not on time, but immediately.”

Jana Bowden has long wavy black hair, glasses and a blue dress and smiles in front of images of an office
Jana Bowden says private transport can add to the carbon footprint of people shopping at bricks and mortar stores. (Supplied)

She said same-day or express deliveries could have a greater environmental impact than a shopper going to a store to buy the same product.

“Delivery trucks may only be part full and couriers may dispatch a few items only to a local catchment area,” she said.

“It’s the dark side of online shopping.”

Then, there are returns.

Return to sender

Australian Consumer and Retail Studies (ACRS) researchers at Monash University looked into the way people were shopping and how often they were returning their purchases in 2022.

“Many might assume that if someone was to buy online versus a physical store, they’d be more likely to return an online purchase because they haven’t been able to see it before, they haven’t tried it on, they don’t know the quality,” the group’s Eloise Zoppos said.

“Our research found the opposite.”

Eloise Zoppos has brown hair below her shoulders and crosses her arms over a black dress while smiling closed mouth
Researcher Eloise Zoppos says fewer online purchases are returned than goods bought at a shopping centre or store. (Supplied)

Dr Zoppos said 66 per cent of shoppers who made a purchase at a physical store said they had made a return, compared to 42 per cent of online shoppers.

Returns to bricks-and-mortar stores require further individual trips in private transportation, but Dr Zoppos said online shopping also lost ground from failed purchases, particularly those that required air freight.

She said returns also needed to be packaged.

“Some retailers try to make returns as easy as possible by providing a return label already with your product. But of course, that is more paper that is printed with the product,” she said.

Dr Zoppos said some retailers had starting charging a returns fee, but she said it was not clear whether that was for sustainability or to help their bottom line.

Sales and sustainability

ACRS’s research has revealed shoppers have become more mindful of their consumption.

“Particularly post-pandemic, when people really started to slow down and had time to consider the impact of their purchases,” Dr Zoppos said.

“It is an important factor when deciding what to buy, how to buy, when to buy.”

Consumer research by Australia Post last year found younger shoppers, in particular, were looking for more sustainable retail options such as recycled, reusable or biodegradable packaging.

Storage area of new Australia Post electric vehicle
Experts say retailers will respond if customers demand greener shopping. (ABC News: Meghna Bali)

Retailers appear to be listening, with many starting to post sustainability statements on their website for customers to browse.

Sydney-based online towel retailers Andres Fernandez and Andres Masso say sustainability can be a selling point.

“As a shopper, when you go to a regular, you know, typical store, you pretty much go and look at your product and you just buy what you like,” Mr Fernandez said.

A man wearing a black t-shirt sits at a computer showing a woman wrapped in a towel on a beach.
Andres Fernandez says it’s important for customers to see how online companies address sustainability in their business model. (Supplied)

“You really don’t have the time or the information available to look at what that store is actually doing in terms of the environment, the social responsibility.

“Whilst online, you have all that information available, you have the time to look around the website and see what that brand is doing.”

Mr Fernandez said he had received positive feedback from customers about the business’s online pledge.

“I think for online businesses it is super important to have that social and environmental commitment really visible on the website.”

A yellow stripped towel inside a plastic ziplocked bag printed with "this bag is biodegradable".
Andres Fernandez says his online company uses biodegradable packaging. (Supplied)

How to reduce the carbon footprint of your new shoes

Prof. Bowden said consumers played a large role in forcing retailers to adopt more sustainable products and practices.

She suggested online shoppers choose regular shipping instead of same-day or express delivery, while those visiting a shopping centre or local shopping strip plan ahead to make multiple purchases on the same trip.

Including the term ‘near me’ when searching for an item can help reduce the distance delivery trucks have to travel. And you may even find what you’re after is available at a store within walking distance to your home.

a brown bag with the words 'i'm a real dirt bag'
Cardboard packaging can be reused in the garden. (ABC News: Emilia Terzon)

“If consumers continue to demand ultra-convenience, low prices, same-day shipping and prettily packaged goods, then that’s what retailers will give them in order to meet those needs,” Professor Bowden said.

“They can vote with their dollars, they can buy from ethical retailers, they can elect to purchase in ways that lessen their impact on the environment.”

How do you do most of your shopping – online or instore? Is that based on environmental concerns? Share your views in the comments section below.

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