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E-Shopping: A Click Away from Destroying the Planet?

Written by Vanshika Sighroha
Illustration by Tarique Aziz

With the advancements in technology, life has become easier as all the amenities are just a click away. Be it ordering a new dress, booking a cab ride, buying movie tickets or ordering food from your favourite restaurant, all of it just a click away. With the boom of technology in the field of shopping, e-shopping has increased at a phenomenal rate across the globe. Nevertheless, in this battle of clicks vs bricks, the advocates of clicks have always believed that it is an eco-friendlier approach to carry out daily life activities as there are less carbon footprints produced owing to a smaller number of people moving out of their homes. But the real question is, is this the actual scenario of e-commerce and is it feasible for environmental health?

Let’s begin with the substance we encounter first after receiving our online parcel, packaging, the plastic wrap, plastic boxes, etc. Seldom do we notice that online shopping uses triple times more the packaging used in an in-store purchase. When you go to purchase an outfit, you get it billed and the store gives it to you in a paper bag or in a high-quality plastic bag.

The scenario is a little different when you order the same product via an online retailer, the packaging process changes, the product is first sealed in a thick plastic sheet and then an even thicker plastic covering by the retailer, and if it is fragile, there is an additional bubble sheet packaging. On top of this, the bill is also sealed in a mini-plastic pocket. Where does all this packaging go? it lands in the huge piles of heap, and not to much surprise, this waste is a major contributor to the 11.2 billion tons of solid waste collected worldwide. Another issue that needs to be addressed is of paper invoices, often while making an in-store purchase, the environmental-friendly people usually opt for an e-bill sent as a SMS on their registered mobile number. '

Whereas, in an online purchase, if you’ve ever made an observation the invoice is bigger mostly owing to the multiple levels of delivery processes it goes through. Hence, there is a need to curtail the excessive generation of paper as well. Further, food packaging is even worse, the food-cases which are made of plastic and then taped tightly are non-biodegradable, and the increased frequency of ordering food online in recent times is a measure good enough to analyse the amount of plastic being dumped on earth.

Even with single-use plastic becoming a big NO among the consumers, one cannot avoid the use of plastic forks, one-time use chopsticks, plastic bowls, etc. Their avoidance is a challenge mainly because other biodegradable products like paper, are costlier and not very handy to use, in fact their use is discouraged by the consumer itself. China’s annual consumption of disposable chopsticks is 80 billion pairs, which brings carbon emissions for 36.8 million kg (Chen 2011), viz. 0.46 g CO2 per pair of disposable chopsticks.

The advocates of e-shopping often defend the argument with reduction of carbon footprints as the ultimate result of the introduction of the click and order service, but it looks like a far-fetched dream. Yes, it does curb the emissions when we look at it superficially, the vehicles delivering to multiple locations in one trip produces way lesser carbon footprints than each consumer making a trip to the shopping complex.

The story doesn’t end here, research shows that customers are five times more likely to indulge in return and exchange of commodities when they purchase them online than an in-store purchase. The carbon footprint produced in the process of picking up the product, then delivering a new one in fact compensates for the footprints that were curbed earlier. With only 6-8% products being returned or exchanged in an offline store in comparison to 30% of online purchase, evidently produces greater footprints in the environment. Furthermore, in a brick store, we try our size and are assured of how the product comes out to be (shoes, apparel, accessory, etc), hence we choose what suits us.

Whereas in an online store, the likeability is judged only when the product arrives and we try it, with 30% products being returned, it will shock you that nearly 99% of these returned products are never re-utilized and are simply dumped! When online retailers promise to cater to all consumer demands, they maintain an extra stock of sizes and colours than an offline store, either this extra stock is dumped or it never finds a way in the supply chain. In all, the amount of waste generated, both of resources and capital, is gigantic.

The issue of express delivery is the next major concern in this field. The idea seems very comforting and economical, but it comes along with three times more carbon-emissions than a normal delivery. The key reason behind this is, air freight which is used for express delivery generates four times more emissions than the standard delivery which takes place through maritime or road shipping. While resorting to road shipping, retailers/service providers are required to maintain extra vehicles which further adds to the maintenance cost in terms of fuel consumption and higher emissions.

This is even worse in case of food items, cooked meals are generally made in greater quantities in order to cater to express delivery demands. If the estimated quantity is not fulfilled for that day, the food goes down the garbage lane. While retailers keep a considerable margin of food reserve, their storage also employs appliances with higher carbon emissions. The adversities caused to the environment due to online food ordering is a matter of concern and calls for immediate action. The foremost step should be a conscious boycott of these containers by the consumers itself.

There are certain things that we as consumers can do for a greener environment. To begin with, indulge in mindful shopping, shop only what you need. If one wants to relish the online offers, you can order and select to collect/pick from the store in order to lessen the burden on the supplier as well as on the environment.

Secondly, products that have a higher probability of being disliked due to uncomfortable fit like shoes and apparel should be purchased at brick stores in order to eliminate the extra emission involved in returning or exchanging the product. Next, analyse the packaging of the product, opt for recyclable plastic-free packaging along with an e-bill alone in order to curtail production of paper. While online shopping has its own perks, for instance delivering medicines to doorstep is one commendable use of e-commerce, and if practised consciously it can help curtail environmental degradation. After studying the cons of online shopping, protecting and preserving Mother Earth is of utmost importance and priority, hence, utilizing technology for the same rather than degrading it should be our only concern because it is only the Earth that we ALL have in common.

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