shopping transport

The environmental impact of online shopping

Every year, the amount of stuff that we buy online increases. More and more things that we used to get from shops now come from the internet – clothes, takeaways, razor subscriptions. And every year we need more delivery capacity to get it all to us, preferably as fast as possible. That’s more money for the courier companies, which have been growing rapidly, and of course it means more and more vans on the streets.

When online shopping was young, it was hoped that it might be better for the environment than traditional retail – if we understand ‘traditional retail’ to be people driving themselves to the shops. A van delivering groceries could take the place of 20 or 30 car trips to the supermarket. One warehouse uses less energy and takes up less physical space than several stores and the car parks to serve them. Of course, walking or cycling to the shops is a different matter, but compared to the bad transport habits of the late 20th century, online shopping looked promising. Early studies showed that it used less energy than the usual car option.

The situation has become more complex over time.  In the past we might have gone to the supermarket or the mall and got everything we needed in one go, making one trip. Now we might get those things from different online services. They come in separate packages, with multiple deliveries, and that means more vehicle miles than before. And those are van miles, not cars. Vans generally produce more greenhouse gases and more air pollution than cars.

We also send stuff back. When online shopping was new, we bought books and CDs and we knew what we were getting. Today a lot of people buy clothes online, try things on and then decide if they’re going to keep them. In online fashion retail, 25% of goods are returned. Returns multiply the van trips and wipe out any carbon savings.

Research has also identified that people often combine tasks in a trip. Perhaps we used to go to the supermarket after dropping the children off at school, for example. Nowadays we get the supermarket to deliver our groceries, but we still drive the kids to school. So the online order actually increases emissions, with two vehicles on the road where there used to be one.

As I mentioned recently, transport is now Britain’s biggest source of emissions. (The same is true in America, where transport emissions overtook power plants in 2016.) Van traffic on Britain’s roads is growing faster than any other type of vehicle, and is expected to double by 2040. Online shopping is not the only reason, but it’s a big factor. So as we look at how to curb emissions from transport, it’s worth asking what could be done differently to get our online purchases to us.

Today I’m outlining the problem. In future posts I’ll mention some of the different solutions, for delivery companies, and for ourselves.


  1. Nearly everything I have bought online recently has had to be returned and the correct or undamaged items sent again.

  2. Electric vans are coming (hopefully powered by renewables) and maybe hydrogen fuel cell vans. But the real, long term solution involves getting people to consume less.

  3. Recently I listened to a podcast that outlined how the City of Toronto has been completely unprepared in it’s downtown planning requirements for online deliveries. In the downtown core, for example, many multistory condos don’t have proper delivery bays and hence delivery companies like Loomis and such, have no choice but to double park in the street causing even more traffic congestion. Lots of unforeseen problems are arising. Having said this I dislike shopping at malls and don’t live near an urban centre, so I enjoy occasionally ordering a few items online and picking it up at the post office. Who knows where this is going, and I look forward to your further thoughts on this Jeremy.

  4. I felt the same way as you did about online retail when it began.
    Or at least part of me did…
    Now, even besides the environmental impact, as time goes by you can really feel the loss of local stores (clothing, books, music, etc.). But I think they are making a comeback, record stores and the like (if they can survive the high rents).

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