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Online shopping is big business: Americans spent more than $860 billion on e-commerce in 2020, up 44 percent from 2019. Much of that increase was due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed millions of consumers online for reasons of safety as well as convenience.

But fast, frictionless delivery also exacts a considerable environmental toll, according to several online-retailing-industry studies. Consider these factors.

Rush Delivery

Choosing expedited shipping more than doubles a package’s carbon footprint — and it’s becoming the norm. Amazon has geared up to be capable of delivering to 72 percent of the United States within 24 hours.

Failed Deliveries

About 10 percent of initial deliveries fail in urban areas, requiring two — or more — delivery attempts.

Split Shipment

When a retailer splits a single order into multiple shipments, it increases carbon emissions by 35 percent.

Traffic Congestion

Delivery trucks make up 7 percent of traffic in American cities. And delivery traffic is projected to grow by 36 percent by 2030 thanks in part to online shopping, according to a recent study by the World Economic Forum.

Returns

Moving returned inventory creates more than 15 million tons of carbon-dioxide emissions each year in the United States — more than the total annual emissions from 3 million cars.

Waste

Each year, more than 5 billion pounds of returned goods are routed to U.S. landfills. Nearly a third of our solid waste comes from e-commerce packaging.

Greener Online Shopping

Online shopping can be more eco-friendly than brick-and-mortar retail, as long as you make your choices with sustainability in mind. Try these tips to shrink your shopping footprint.

  1. Choose a slower shipping option. Two-day shipping is tempting, but it requires air freight, which is much more carbon intensive than ground delivery. Picking the longer shipping window means the retailer can prioritize efficiency over speed, rather than the other way around.
  2. Avoid unnecessary returns. Nearly two-thirds of online shoppers in 2020 bought multiples of the same item with the intention of returning some of them, a practice that significantly increases a delivery’s carbon footprint.
  3. Seek out sustainable retailers. Some companies, such as prAna and Toad&Co, prioritize sustainability in their shipping practices, whether it’s through plastic reduction or reusable packaging.
  4. Shop mindfully. Try making fewer purchases, whether that means buying less or simply waiting until your cart is full before ordering. That way, your order can be consolidated into fewer boxes, which means fewer vehicles and less packaging.

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