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Unpacking online shopping’s environmental impacts



Online shopping has revolutionized consumer habits. It’s also influenced broader societal trends, including how people understand convenience, consumerism and the global economy. It continues to shape expectations, behaviours and interactions with commerce.

Overconsumption, packaging, transportation, returns and disposability are all part of the systems and culture of online shopping with environmental impacts. Can we find a balance between convenience and sustainability?

“When people buy less stuff, you get immediate drops in emissions, resource consumption and pollution, unlike anything we’ve achieved with green technology.” J.B. MacKinnon

Amazon: delivering climate change

Amazon’s formula of price, speed and convenience has dominated the global e-commerce marketplace. But the e-retailer’s success has exploited workers and the planet while driving up carbon emissions that cause climate disruption.

In 2021, Amazon generated 71.54 billion metric kilograms of carbon dioxide. That’s the amount 180 gas-fired power plants might pump out in a year — an 18 per cent increase from 2020. Its “Climate Pledge” allows the company to get away with misleading carbon accounting and fails to include emissions from manufacturing many products it sells.

The online giant was also investigated for destroying millions of unused or returned products. Whatever energy, water and materials used to produce and transport all that stuff ends up as waste.

The dark side of Black Friday and Cyber Monday

Every year, millions wait for annual online shopping events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday (and Boxing Day in Canada).

Black Friday and Cyber Monday follow American Thanksgiving. Two of the busiest, most lucrative online shopping days of the year, they kick off the swell of winter holiday season e-commerce sales. Retailers offer alluring deals, limited-time discounts and promises of swift deliveries.

“Time-bound” purchase incentives and the psychology of scarcity can perpetuate a false sense of urgency. That compels people to shop fast, without thinking through decisions. A University of Leeds study found that up to 80 per cent of Black Friday purchases end up in landfills, sometimes after just one use.

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