Why do we need to change our online shopping habits to be more sustainable?


Did you know that there is an environmental cost for sending goods back from your online shopping? Of course it is not easy to pin down how much online shopping is damaging our environment, however any unnecessary transportation should be avoided to decrease carbon dioxide emissions. From personal experience - I have an online yoga clothing shop for the past 12 years - I can confirm that online shoppers were more responsible back in 2007 when I started out. They spent more time in doing their research about the product they wanted to buy to avoid any disappointments. This changed dramatically with the introduction of free returns and free exchanges. Of course, free returns/exchanges are more customer friendly and also sometimes necessary, however excessive online ordering and online returns is not sustainable anymore. A recent study from Navis (2018) and Return Magic Survey (2017) confirms that online returns have become the “new normal”. According to the research 41% of US online consumers buy a variation of products with the intent of returning, 42% of US online consumers have returned an online purchase in the last six months and 89% have returned an online purchase in the last three years. Research also suggest that millennials are the more likely consumer group to return goods and the most demanding when it comes to returns policies.

Another sustainability challenge is posed by “serial returners”. In the UK, IrishTatler.com states, that “more than a third of shops have seen an increase in serial returns over the last year, leading 45 per cent of retailers, including ASOS and Harrods, to devise a plan where serial returners would be blacklisted”. Therefore, Asos is planning to prohibit customers with an unusual buying pattern to shop on their website. This means that customers who only wear their purchases once, for example for social media pictures, and then return them, or anyone ordering and returning goods excessively can be banned from future online purchases.

But why is online shopping not so sustainable anymore? Online shopping can be more sustainable compared to normal shopping at stores as it needs less space and energy, however immoderate packaging creates more waste, while transportation contributes to climate change. Indeed in 2016, transportation contributed to more carbon dioxide emission in the US than power plants. But this is not all, the negative impact is particularly increasing in the final stretch, from a distribution centre to a package’s final destination, which in the world of supply-chain logistics is termed “the last mile”. In the time before online orders were shipped directly to the customers, deliveries were mainly made to stores- this made it possible for large trucks to be used, fuel consumption to be more efficient and for the transportation of goods to have a lower impact on traffic congestion. Now, however, it is de rigueur for packages to be delivered directly to residential addresses, increasing traffic and congestion, especially during peak sales seasons such as Black Friday or Christmas, and polluting the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

In order to make online shopping more sustainable again, we have to shift our mindset and buying patterns to avoid any unnecessary impact on the environment. We have summarised some tips for consumers and companies here:


  • Invest time to try clothing on in a shop of the same brand. Brands tend to stick to their sizing

  • Know your size and invest time into reading the sizing tables

  • Think! Do I really need this item?

  • Try to group your online order

  • Do your research beforehand in order to avoid returns

  • Call up the brand if you do have any questions

  • Recycle or reuse your packaging


  • Try to avoid unnecessary packaging

  • Give clear sizing and measurement instructions

  • Contact customers with large or unusual orders before sending the goods out

  • Implement an environmentally sustainable returns and exchange policy

  • Try to inform your customers that excessive returns and exchanges can be damaging for the environment

For more information on data of online returns: https://www.shopify.com/enterprise/ecommerce-returns

For more information on the effect of online shopping on the environment: https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/12/21/16805324/black-friday-2018-amazon-online-shopping-cyber-monday-environmental-impact