Online shopping is easy, but how do we affect the environment when we press that button?The Chaotic Soul blog

With more time spent at work, most people turn to online shopping to lessen their workload. The popularity of ordering goods online has increased and the e-commerce industry has seen a boom, partly facilitated by the ready availability of smartphones, tablets and laptops. But what exactly is e-commerce? It refers to the purchase of goods or services by consumers through the internet. With the internet penetration rate in Europe growing steadily, prospects for the growth of e-commerce look better and better.

Before understanding e-commerce and its impact, it is necessary to understand the chain reaction caused by urbanisation. Urbanisation generally precedes growing income standards and leads to the growth of ecological footprints. This growth is largely due to the growth in carbon emissions. If this were to be simplified by an example, an excellent one would be the comparison of the average ecological footprint in Beijing and China as a whole – Beijing’s average is almost three times more than China’s. While that is an area of concern, e-commerce and its rise has meant that businesses have largely changed the traditional way of doing things. While that might mean convenience to consumers at home, there is a lot more going on than what meets the eye.

The impact on climate change

There are certain impacts to last-mile logistics schemes and the trend of e-commerce when coupled with the rise in urbanisation (which again triggers the chain reaction illustrated above).

Initially, customers used to go to only brick-and-mortar stores to make purchases. In this system, the mode of purchase is offline. Since the consumer has to drive to the retail store and then bring the goods back home, the mode of service is self-service; and finally, there is only a single, unique channel for sales and logistics.

Such a system prompts the economics of logistics, which pushed the building of supermarkets and hypermarkets, particularly at the fringes of cities or near rural areas, now changing the distance the customers had to travel to get their supplies. But if the distance is increased, the associated benefit is that the customers can buy their supplies in bulk, and with better discounts.

Even with this change, the mode of service still primarily remains self-service. But when e-commerce came into the picture, everything changed. There is a wider variety no longer constrained by the size of the store. There are multi-channel sales, and various options like home delivery, getting the products delivered to a designated collection point, and visiting the actual store.

However, the problem (and the beginning of the impact of climate change) begins when you start to analyse the effect this has on the total footprint. Under the traditional system, a large bulk of goods are sent to the retail stores, from which many customers get their products. However, with e-commerce, every retailer is expected to deliver directly to its customers. The order size is one product instead of thousands, with smaller packages and faster delivery. On top of this, the internet provides 24x7 availability, which compounds this supply chain even further.

As a result, vehicle footprint increases, leading to increased carbon emissions, air pollution and generally detrimental to health. The increased emissions also affect climate change.

How is society addressing it?

In modern society, these problems are hard to tackle. Urban cities, where such problems are highest, are also the hubs of economic and social growth. If this were not enough, there is now a visible correlation between urban freight distribution and economic growth. This correlation has become a breeding ground for innovation, making sustainable growth possible.

However, to accurately assess the problems that this is causing as well as how societies like London are dealing with it, let’s use Jared Diamond’s five factors framework, including environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, friendly trade partners and society’s response.

1. Environmental damage and climate change

If anthropogenic emissions are not controlled or regulated and continue to grow at the same pace, climate change is projected to accelerate, with adverse effects on almost everything – from water, ecosystems, food to coastal zones and human health.

Transportation is the major culprit here. As much as 27% of UK’s greenhouse gas emission is caused by transport. On top of this, the large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions are increasing problems, because carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping greenhouse gas.

When the transportation problem is analysed, it is found that the maximum number of vehicles on the road (and thus the ones causing the maximum emissions) are lights good vehicles (LGV), supporting the premise that the e-commerce boom has had a huge hand in contributing to this problem. Noise disturbance too is a corollary.

2. Friendly neighbours and hostile trade partners

A collaborative approach is required to tackle these problems since sustainable solutions require huge investment, as well as being time-consuming. The European Commission took a step in this regard by starting the system of EU emissions trading. The projection is that by 2020, emissions will be lower by 21% when compared to 2005. The Commission has set various goals for various years, like carbon dioxide-free urban cities by 2030. EU member states also have agreements with motor manufacturers to reduce emissions.

The UK government extends Vehicle Excise Duty to encourage hybrids and the like. 

3. Society’s response

The Greater London Authority (GLA) and Transport for London (TfL) have set certain desirable limits they are working to reach. The LFP has a freight policy framework that works on improving freight distribution. The EC has, through its fifth Environmental Plan, worked on tackling noise pollution.

City logistics has been improved as well, with delivery points being increasingly used in case of the common problem of not-at-home while delivering.


A lot of undesirable circumstances and effects could be mitigated with effort, particularly the regulation of emissions and ways to make delivery more environmentally friendly. This is so important because the right balance between economic growth and sustainability allows for reducing environmental damage without compromising the quality of life.

In truth, when the public takes responsibility, there is little it cannot do. Every small step and every small initiative goes a long way in protecting the environment and making it greener.