Online Shopping…?


In this next installation of my blog, I will be talking about the environmental impacts of online shopping, specifically in comparison to shopping traditionally.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) did a study researching the carbon footprint of different types of shoppers, ranging from Traditional Shoppers who do their shopping completely offline, to Cybernauts who do their shopping completely online. Between these two types of shopper lies the spectrum of shoppers who do parts of their shopping offline and others online. The diagram below was taken from the study and illustrates the carbon footprint of the various types of shoppers.

For the sake of simplicity,  I have also attached another version of a graph created by Vox representing the results of the study. This graph extracts the information of only 3 types of shoppers: online shoppers, traditional shoppers and online shoppers who opt for rushed delivery methods.

From this graph, I hope you can see the reason why I will now bring in online shoppers who opt for rushed delivery as a comparison to traditional and online shoppers. We can see that the carbon footprint of online shopping is lower than that of traditional shopping. This arises from the lower carbon footprint of managing a physical store compared to an online store. It is almost not surprising considering the amount of energy that goes into the operation of a brick-and-mortar store. What I truly want us to focus on is what happens when online shoppers choose to rush their orders.

Amazon offers free one-day shipping when you order with PRIME and, closer to home, Zalora offers unlimited next day deliveries for just $14.90. These are tempting to use due to their low upfront cost but we often don’t see the environment costs that arise from choosing these options. Choosing delivery options that only allows the companies to deliver to you within such a short time frame forces them to send out your parcels in trucks only half-filled, or send your items in multiple trips, in order to get each item to you as fast as possible. The effect of this would be a higher amount of carbon footprint being generated, compared to not only online shopping without rushed delivery, but also that of traditional shopping.

So what can we do to stop customers from choosing these rushed shipping options? The answer is surprisingly easy. A team from MIT has actually found out that the key to rallying shoppers to choose more sustainable options is simply to, wait for it… add a Sustainable Shipping Option. In the study, when shoppers were given monetary incentive to opt for slower shipping options, only 70% indicated that they would opt for it. However, of the 30% who didn’t go for the option, when told that choosing the slower shipping option would benefit the environment, 60% of them changed their mind.

It is thus evident that shoppers do have sentiments to shop in a sustainable manner. Perhaps what they lack is simply the education for them to make more sustainable choices.

Sze Jie

4 Replies to “Online Shopping…?”

  1. Hi Sze Jie,

    Thank you for this informative post. For quite some time I used to think that traditional shopping was better after learning about the carbon footprint of using the internet, but now I have a better understanding of how this works out. I feel bad now for having used express shipping…
    Anyways, I was looking at the first graph you put up here, in particular, the “customer transportation” part. Do you think traditional shopping would be the best option if one decided to walk to the store, as the “customer transportation” part would be eliminated, or is there some other hidden environmental cost of going to a brick-and-mortar store?

    Evelyn 🙂

    1. Hey Evelyn!

      Thanks for the comment! Customer transportation is indeed one of the biggest transportation to the carbon footprint of a traditional shopper. I agree that this aspect would be eliminated if customers decided to walk to the stores to shop, however, I would think there would be a sizeable amount of people who do not live within walkable distances from shopping centres, especially the major ones. I think a limitation of this MIT study would be that the study is conducted i the U.S. in which the main mode of transport used is cars. Since each passenger taking the MRT would only generate 13.2 kg of carbon per kilometre, compared to the 118kg by car, I feel that it is possible that in Singapore, the carbon footprint of traditional shoppers could be much lower due to the smaller carbon footprint from customer transport.

      Sze Jie

      Eco-Business. (2010, October 21). Singapore’s MRT lines to be graded on green-ness. Retrieved from

      1. Hi Sze Jie,

        Thanks for the clarification 🙂 I guess we should be aware of the inaccuracies when we use secondary data and apply it to a specific context (like the US to Singapore).
        From now on, I think I should try and shop at the nearest malls to reduce my carbon footprint, whenever I can.

        All the best in the journey ahead!
        Evelyn 🙂

  2. Hello Sze Jie!

    I’m sorry for this super belated comment! Reading this post after 11.11(singles day sales) made me feel so guilty about my spending spree during 11.11. I feel that online platforms are so much more effective in promoting hyper-consumerism than physical stores. Do you think the different nature of sales online and in physical stores can have a part to play in the carbon emissions generated?

    Pei Yun

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