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Sustainability in Digital Shopping: A Historical Look at Eco-Friendly Choices

Environmental issues are a very real concern in modern life. With e-commerce becoming more popular in the last decade, it is important to consider eco-friendly digital shopping. In this article, we will look at the historical evolution of sustainable shopping and why it is important to make eco-friendly choices in e-commerce, as well as tactics for eco-conscious online shopping.

The Historical Evolution of Sustainable Shopping

It’s only been about three decades since there’s been such a thing as online shopping. Back in the 1990s, when the internet was only really entering homes for the first time, e-commerce was a very small business. Most shopping was still very much done in person. Online shopping was a slow, clunky business and had not truly captured the globe’s attention. Fast forward to 30 years later, and more and more retail is being done online. Digital shopping is now the quickest and most convenient way to get most items. There are giant shipping companies that offer express delivery and have every item you could possibly want.

Something that has also grown over the last few decades is sustainable shopping. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, hippie and punk cultures began to reject what we would know today as fast fashion and went against mass consumerism. This was when second-hand stores began to take off. By the 1980s, the idea of recycling had become more mainstream but was still second to the idea of getting things done quickly and sticking to the latest trends. It was only in the 1990s that recycling and sustainability in business really came to the forefront, and big brands started to at least promote themselves as giving something back. Over the next decade, consumers will become more environmentally conscious and try to make eco-friendly decisions. But, at the same time, fast fashion began to really grow too. Suddenly, people could get what they needed quickly and cheaply. Fast fashion in stores can be thought of as sort of a precursor to the convenience with which we buy things online nowadays. So, throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, fast fashion really started to take off, but at the same time, the general public’s awareness of environmental matters also grew. So, something really had to give in this competitive atmosphere, with consumers wanting everything quick and cheap but also wanting things to be made in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way.

Those things really don’t go together. Not only are there problems in terms of human rights issues in fast fashion, but it really isn’t good for the environment. In order for items to be made quickly and sold for cheap, they have to be made for cheap with environmental corners cut. This means using materials that are harder to recycle because they are cheaper and using less environmentally-friendly ways of manufacturing things because of how quickly everything from raw materials to employees to finished products has to be transported. Fast fashion has led to an increase in waste and carbon emissions.
At the same time, over the past 15 years, online shopping has really taken off to the extent that we can now get any product online and have it delivered to us right away. Unfortunately, this is also bad for the environment, as it means a higher level of goods needing to be transported and a mountain of packaging being used, much of which is not recyclable or just ends up in a landfill anyway. The ease and convenience of online shopping and fast fashion have had a significant environmental impact.

However, research has shown that consumers are becoming more eco-conscious. Surveys from 2022 say the majority of consumers around the world have become at least a little bit more conscious of sustainability in shopping and have adjusted their shopping habits to try and be more environmentally friendly. It appears sustainability is at the forefront of many customers’ minds nowadays, with research suggesting over 70% of consumers would change their shopping habits if it meant having a positive impact on the environment.

This shift in attitude has led to changes, with many brands offering a sustainable option or saying they will give something back to help the environment. Looking at the historical significance of eco-friendly choices in online shopping, it would seem customers are now more willing to pay extra for sustainable, eco-friendly packaging. Despite this, there are still a lot of people who prefer convenience and want the cost of sustainable goods to deter them.

Everything would suggest that online shopping is here to stay for the foreseeable future with so much of our lives taking place in the digital world, which means it is important that eco-conscious online shopping is the way forward.

Is Online Shopping More Sustainable?

So, how environmentally friendly is online shopping really? Looking at the historical evolution of sustainable shopping, we can see that the desire for environmentally friendly products has grown, but so too has the desire for quick, easy, and cheap fashion, which has led to customers turning to online shopping. Since the start of 2010, online shopping has really taken off and has grown even more since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as people were at home more and couldn’t go to physical shops.

Whether or not online shopping is more sustainable than in-person shopping really depends on whether consumers and online stores are making eco-friendly choices in e-commerce. One of the main environmental issues with online shopping is that consumers now expect items to be delivered quickly and cheaply, which leads to a lot of waste.
There are two main factors coming from the ease and convenience people expect their online shopping to be:

  • Packaging
  • Delivery and Transport

Starting with packaging, how many times have you ordered something online and been presented with a box that is far too big for the product it is carrying? Then you open the box and find an ocean of plastic surrounding what you have bought. This type of packaging is incredibly wasteful. Oftentimes, the plastics are made from mixed materials that are hard to recycle. Over-packaging is a serious issue in online shopping because once someone gets their product, it’s the end of the line for the box and plastic. While these materials can often be recycled, a lot of the time they end up in landfills anyway. There’s no avoiding packaging, as products have to be packed in something. It is crucial that online retailers begin to be environmentally friendly with their packaging and start using recyclable materials.

When it comes to delivery and transport, next-day delivery is really bad for the environment. If a product needs to be delivered the next day, it means it has to be shipped quicker, which ultimately means more transport is used. Instead of 100 products being shipped in one truck, there could be 10 products being shipped in 10 trucks to get them out faster, which leads to a higher level of carbon emissions. It is better for the environment if items can be transported in bulk.

This is actually one of the reasons why in-person shopping can be more sustainable. When people go shopping in person, they tend to get more products in one trip. This is more sustainable than ordering multiple products separately online, which need to be shipped at different times.

One major issue in the world of online shopping is that more items get returned. Because of the ease with which people can buy, they often order things they don’t want or don’t properly read the description of an item and are then happy with them. This leads to them returning the product, which causes more emissions from transport, and further packaging as a replacement will be delivered.

Eco-Friendly Choices in Online Shopping

Some of the things that would make online shopping more sustainable include:

  • Using biodegradable packaging
  • Not offering next-day delivery for free
  • Using less packaging
  • Having clear and detailed descriptions of items on the website to prevent people from ordering the wrong thing

How Consumers Can Go About Eco-Conscious Online Shopping

So, what can we do as consumers to promote eco-friendly shopping? Here are 7 things to keep in mind when ordering online:

  1. Delivery Options: Usually, when you are ordering a product online, you get the option to select the date range of the delivery. There will generally be slower delivery (maybe that takes about a week) or express delivery (a couple of days). In some cases, there is even next-day delivery. While it is more convenient to just have your items show up as soon as possible, ask yourself whether or not you really need them that quickly. Slower delivery options are better for the environment as they don’t have to be rushed out. When you select the slower delivery option, you are ensuring that there are fewer transport emissions produced. This is because your item can be transported with more packages, which means fewer delivery vans are needed. If you choose express delivery, it requires delivery vans to make more trips. So, if there is an option for slower delivery, select it. For only the cost of waiting a few more days, you will be helping the environment.
  2. Buy in Bulk: One of the eco-friendly aspects of in-person shopping is that people tend to get more things in one single trip, which basically means they are making fewer trips in their car. Similarly, if you order products in one shopping session rather than at separate times, you are ensuring that one shipping trip will account for many items rather than individual items needing to be shipped in multiple trips. Further to this, ordering in bulk saves on packaging, as although each item will be individually packaged, there will only be a need for one big box rather than multiple big boxes.
  3. Packaging Options: If there is an option for environmentally sustainable or low-waste packaging, make sure you choose it. So much of the environmental damage from online shopping comes from the level of unnecessary packaging. It may cost an extra couple of dollars to choose an eco-friendly packaging option, but it will make a big difference.
  4. Avoid Returns: Online shopping is so convenient that it is easy to just click frivolously and add unnecessary items to your basket. The issue with this is that it means more waste, and often times, these items are simply returned. Avoid buying things you don’t need, and make sure you read the product description to ensure what you are buying is what you really want. If you do order an item and change your mind, deciding that you don’t want it, then you should really consider donating it to a charity shop or community store. This way, the item can be reused and doesn’t have to be transported back to where it came from.
  5. Buy Direct: While online shipping services are very convenient, it is better for the environment if you can buy directly from a merchant instead of a big middle-man company. Doing so produces less packaging and transport and ensures you are supporting small businesses.
  6. Good Reviews: Leave good reviews for online shops and products that offer a sustainable shopping experience, and share them on social media. As well as this, you should do some research into what online stores use sustainable shipping and packaging options.
  7. Collection or Home Delivery: If you can do so, walk or cycle to the collection point for your packages. If this isn’t possible, then arrange home delivery (but not next-day or express delivery). Doing this means there will be fewer cars on the road, as instead of multiple cars driving to the collection point, there will just be one delivery van dropping off packages.

Making these eco-friendly choices when shopping online goes a long way toward reducing the damage done to the environment by shopping online.

In Summary

Eco-friendly digital shopping has become all the more important with the growth of e-commerce. The historical significance of eco-friendly choices in online shopping is tied to the historical evolution of sustainable shopping, as consumers have begun to demand eco-friendly choices in e-commerce. Eco-conscious online shopping is necessary to reduce the environmental damage done by quick consumerism.

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