Fast & Furious: Online Shopping’s toxic ways

By Soomin Park 23 December, 2021

CWR's Park reminds us why we need to re-think hitting that tempting 'buy' button

It's so easy to hit that 'buy' button but you're not paying the full cost of it with high hidden costs from the actual package to delivery, all of which the climate pays for
Our online shopping habits are making it even worse from express delivery to frequent returns; China’s express delivery industry consumed >8.8mt of paper & plastic packaging
With some small habit changes we can lessen the climate impact; this includes what is going in your shopping cart and it shouldn't be a Christmas jumper

It’s the second Christmas in a row that we’ve all had pandemic woes. So it’s no surprise that being stuck inside for almost two years now is leading many of us to embrace online retail therapy. Plus, as we think about what gifts to get loved ones for Christmas, push alarms and promotion emails offering Christmas discounts are tempting us even more.

It’s easy to hit that “buy” button but what’s the real cost?

It’s so easy to hit that “buy” button but there is a big cost that you aren’t considering when you do hit that button. And that’s the cost to the environment and climate. To help you re-think some of your “buy” decisions we have listed out a few of the costs below with options that you have to minimise and make this Christmas and future ones better for everyone.

One-click online shopping = high hidden costs from package to delivery

The real costs of online shopping are mostly hidden – from the packing to delivery – and our habits like speed delivery and free returns are making it worse. We look at four aspects that make online shopping fast and furious but also the small habit tweaks that will make them less fast (afraid so) and less furious for the climate.

1) Wasteful & dirty packaging, plastic and all of that wrapping stuff

Bubble wrap, cardboard, styrofoam and so on… all ‘vital’ materials to prevent damage to the contents in a parcel cause tremendous waste. According to Greenpeace China’s report on China’s Express Packaging, China’ express delivery industry alone consumed more than 8.8 million tonnes of paper and plastic packaging materials (excluding the tracking label paper) in 2018 only. This amount of waste could fill the Tseung Kwan O landfill in Hong Kong to full capacity, which would typically take around 12 years under normal operation.

Separately, just the wrapping paper alone used only during Christmas in the UK was thrown away in massive amounts. It could stretch around the equator nine times.

China’s express delivery industry consumed >8.8mt of paper & plastic packaging in 2018

Moreover, generating these materials is also very thirsty and toxic – in 2013, the paper & pulp industry in China accounted for 13.6% of total industrial wastewater which is twice as much as that of the coal industry. Although China has issued a series of policies to improve the industry, it still has a long way to get to the lowest standard set by the government.

Habit tweak: Reduce all packaging-related materials as much as possible and if there is an option, select recycled materials and then recycle the materials (if they can be) after you’ve got the package.

2) Long-chain of carbon emissions

Our order packages usually arrive in fossil-fuel-burning trucks, after having travelled sometimes by cargo plane or other freight transport. And these emissions from transport currently accounts for more than one-fifth of global emissions and it is projected to keep growing. World Economic Forum’s study in 2020 predicts that demand for urban last-mile delivery is expected to grow 78% by 2030, leading to 36% more delivery vehicles in 100 cities around the world.

Carbon emissions from China’s express packages could surge to 75mn CO2e by 2035

Take China, for example, the carbon emissions during the entire process from production to waste disposal of express packages was 13.03 million tonnes in 2018, which would require 710 million trees (77% of all trees in New Hampshire Forests in the U.S) to neutralise. And this could surge up to 75 million tonnes of CO2e by 2035, estimated by a recent study published by Nature.

Habit tweak: Group your items into as few shipments as possible.

3) Fast delivery & returns = more emissions

To meet express timing, often vans are not fully loaded and need to do more trips, which increases emissions, among other things. Just by shifting to standard delivery, up to 55 % of carbon emissions could be saved, according to the Australian Financial Review.

Amazon already delivers to 72% of all U.S customers within 24 hours, and Alibaba now aims for 72-hour delivery across the globe… How much faster do you need it really?

And then there are returns. Just because retailers offer pretty much endless free returns, it doesn’t mean you have to use it; you don’t have to buy more just to try because you can return. Don’t be a “serial returner”. Why? Well, it’s basic math, every return generates twice the transportation emissions and adds to the waste streams and so on.

Habit tweak: Opt for normal delivery and cut your returns, shop more sensibly. By cutting just one return a month for a year, you could save 46kg of GHG – see infographic below.

So, remember to really weigh up the costs of hitting that “buy” button, however good the deal is. And actually, the cost of that purchase doesn’t end there, you are also generating emissions even when you’re just browsing online too. Check here to see online habit tweaks for that.

What goes in your shopping cart matters & it shouldn’t include fast fashion

We also wanted to have a look at what is going in your shopping carts. Clothes are a common Christmas gift but as we have written about extensively, fast fashion is bad for the climate – it’s the 4th largest CO2 emitter if it was a country, is super dirty & thirsty and is frolicking in oil. So, while it is tempting to get another comfy scarf or fun Christmas sweater, is there something better for the environment that you can give?

Millions of Xmas jumpers are thrown away after being worn just once

And in case you are still thinking about getting that fun (ugly) Christmas jumper, keep in mind that 2 out of 5 Christmas jumpers are only worn once over the festive period and yet they’re still bought in their millions each year. Even if they’re kept in a closet, as most of these jumpers are made from plastics – acrylics, to be specific – one could generate 730,000 microfibers per wash.

If everyone in the US bought one used item = half a million cars off the road a year

And if you still want that Christmas jumper, buy one made responsibly with natural fibres and wear it multiple years in a row or go second hand – there are plenty of second-hand online platforms. If everybody in the US bought one used item instead of a new one in 2019, it would have saved the carbon emissions equivalent to taking over half a million cars off the road for a year!

Habit tweak: Avoid fast fashion if you can and if you must buy a Christmas jumper, choose one made responsibly with natural fibres and wear it multiple years in a row or go second hand.

These small habit changes can help the climate

I hope these habit changes will help you rethink your decisions over the holiday season and that you keep it going for the new year! Small changes may feel insignificant, but if we all do them they will add up!

And if you want to do more watch out for CWR’s report that will come out early next year – it will have more daily life habit changes to help ensure we have a future to look forward to.

Further reading

  • 8 Planet-Friendly Gifting Tips – Make this Christmas your best one yet for you but also the planet with China Water Risk’s McGregor & Thieriot’s 8 planet-friendly gift & lifestyle tips that Santa & Rudolph will approve of
  • Fashion Has The Power To Shape A 2°C World – If fashion were a country it would have the fourth highest carbon emissions behind the US, China, & India. China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor & Debra Tan question why the industry is not under the spotlight like coal and call for faster disruptions
  • Dirty & Thirsty – Not Just A Paper Tiger – China is the world’s largest paper producer but the industry is a Top-3 polluter. Pollution crackdowns have led to cuts across provinces and water quality has improved. With rising enforcement, is this just the beginning?
  • Unwrapping Packaging Water Risks – China’s paper packaging industry discharges wastewater similar to its entire coal industry. Explore the dirty secrets behind paper & plastic packaging with China Water Risk’s Feng Hu. Also, see how shifting consumer attitudes can bring about new innovations
  • Fast Fashion’s COVID Death & Virtual Revival? – Fast fashion is dying – from broken supply chains and no demand thanks to WFH. CWR’s Dawn McGregor and Debra Tan reimagine fashion’s future – a virtual realm where our avatars attend Zoom drinks and digital supermodels walk the runway


More on Latest

  • It’s Time to Tweak Yourself to Save the Planet– CWR’s McGregor gives a sneak peek into CWR’s upcoming report that shows how simple tweaks to our habits from transport to food and shopping to being online matter for the climate
  • High Flying Carbon Emissions – Rethink Your Next Trip– With no real alternatives to decarbonise, aviation is and will remain carbon intensive. CWR’s Xu makes the case to not just pile back into planes but adjust our flying habits for the better of the climate
  • Tis The Season To Be Worried: Our Online Habits– Did you know your social media and streaming are exacerbating the climate crises? CWR’s intern Lam shines a light on how we need to change our online habits & cultivate a sustainable digital lifestyle
  • Takeout Packaging – 3 Wishes For The New Year– Choking on F&B plastic packaging, Hong Kong needs to implement solutions asap. ADMCF’s Vanthournout shares key findings of their research on the most viable options
  • Will MTR Sink With The Polar Express?– Is the MTR prepared enough to avoid going underwater given rising sea levels & stronger typhoons? CWR’s Leung asks 6 questions for the railway to ponder
Soomin Park
Author: Soomin Park
Soomin was born in South Korea and lived in Shanghai before she pursued studies in environmental management at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. During her transition from a pristine Jeju island to a populous city, Shanghai, she witnessed the important role of the business and finance sector in tackling the global environmental crisis. To understand their applications of sustainability, Soomin was involved in the development of sustainability-driven strategies in different industries such as investment, FMCG, property development and solar energy. At CWR, Soomin aspires to improve water and natural resources’ commercial usage through closing the knowledge gap of corporates and investors in making climate action. During her free time, she produces comics and other forms of creative media to induce social awareness and feelings of connection among the millennial generation to combat climate challenges.
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