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It’s fast, easy and convenient: online shopping has been booming for years. But what about its environmental footprint? Is it more sustainable to buy from stationary retailers? Current studies reveal that this isn’t an easy calculation to make.
Is shopping in store good for the environment and ordering on the Internet bad? It is very difficult to determine because it depends on a variety of factors. It also involves detailing the flow of goods. From manufacturer to logistics service provider, the flow of goods for online and the stationary retail trade are not so different. Only on the penultimate and last mile do they clearly differ from each other. How does an online order reach the customer? How do the store goods get to the shop and how does the customer get there? It is these aspects that can provide the answer.
Saving carbon dioxide
According to a report by the Federal Environment Ministry (Bericht des Bundesumweltministeriums), online orders in rural areas can help save CO2. If consignments are delivered collectively to several customers at a time, this is more sustainable than if these customers all travel individually to a shop. However, this is not the case for instant or same-day deliveries that cannot be delivered collectively.
City dwellers, on the other hand, have the opportunity to get to the shop on foot, by bicycle or by public transport, which of course improves the environmental footprint of the purchase. Testing or trying on goods in the shop can also help to prevent people buying the wrong thing. When it comes to e-commerce, this impacts the environmental footprint in the form of returns.
Reducing returns
A recent study by the University of Bamberg (Universität Bamberg) shows that 1 in 6 packages purchased online in Germany is returned. This resulted in 238,000 tons of CO2 being produced in 2018, which corresponds to 2200 car journeys from Hamburg to Moscow every day. The return rate is particularly high in the shoes and fashion sector, where almost every second package (46 per cent) is returned.
Online retailers actively try to reduce their returns and the associated environmental consequences. Retailers offer live chats with employees to clarify open questions and uncertainties. Fashion retailers rely on a 360-degree depiction of the clothing so that buyers can more easily imagine the goods on their own bodies. And the Dutch start-up Picnic, for example, which uses e-transporters to deliver food in an environmentally sustainable way, collects return parcels and takes them to a nearby post office to avoid multiple journeys.
And the environmental footprint?
So which type of trading has a better environmental balance? It is still difficult to say. There are many parameters included in the calculation but many can also function as adjustable variables. The example of Deutsche Post/DHL shows how much potential there is for reducing CO2 emissions on the last mile. The logistics company uses its electrically driven StreetScooter for delivery. According to corporate figures, the more than 9000 e-transporters save 32,000 tons of CO2 annually.

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