The Future of Retail: How Will the Rise of Online Shopping Impact the Environment?

is online shopping good or bad for the environment?

Think for a second — how often do you use the internet? 

According to a 2021 Global Report, the average person spends nearly 7 hours each and every day on the internet.1 That’s nearly a third of our lives! 

As the internet grows, and more and more people carry smartphones in their pocket, the options for shopping online have also flourished. 

And if we thought things were changing quickly before the pandemic, the retail landscape since 2020 has taught us just how fast those shifts can really happen. 

So what does this mean for the future of online retail? How will that impact the environment? And how does Cloud Paper fit into the equation?

Is Online Shopping the Future of Retail?

It probably comes as no surprise that online shopping experienced a massive spike in 2020, experiencing nearly 120% growth.2 In fact, it went from taking up ~15% of all retail purchases to 32.4%. That means 3 out of every 10 items we purchased in 2020 were bought online, from groceries to toiletries to furniture and more. 

In 2021 that number dropped a bit, but it hasn’t come back down to pre-pandemic levels, and experts predict it never will.2 That’s partly due to a generational push. As Millennials age-up to take center stage as consumers, businesses look to their shopping habits to determine what methods will find the most success. 

And there’s no denying, Millennials love online shopping. One study that looked at shopping behavior on Amazon alone found that 47% of Millennials make a Prime purchase at least once per week, and 10% average more than 7 purchases per week.3

In general, Millennial and Gen Z shoppers make up more than their fair share of online shopping, and businesses will continue to cater to their buying needs. As these are the same generations known for increased internet usage and screen time, it brings up an interesting question…

Is Online Shopping Addictive?

is online shopping addictive

Addictive may be a strong word, but there’s no denying that instant gratification and rush-shipping are strong motivators. 

When you need to go to a physical store, there’s enough barriers to the process that you’re unlikely to make impulse decisions, and more likely to limit the number of trips you make. 

But with online purchases, there’s an instant feeling of reward. See a recipe that looks delicious? Just a few clicks and a confirmation page is telling you that your new Instant Pot is on its way! 

Unfortunately with free memberships and same-day deliveries, it’s easy to make impulse decisions and buy more than you need. Since reducing your consumption is one of the leading ways you can live a sustainable lifestyle, this doesn’t bode well for the environment. 

As a sustainably-minded online business, we are put in an interesting position. Do we join the retailers that make online shopping more accessible, thereby expanding our reach and making a bigger impact? Or do we remain separate, as a direct-to-consumer business? Let’s look at some of the facts: 

Is Online Shopping Bad for the Environment?

All in all, there is conflicting evidence about whether online shopping is good or bad for the environment. And the arguments for both sides make sense. 

On the one hand: 

  • Transportation is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, so it makes sense that individual deliveries would be bad for the environment. 
  • Individual shipping means more packaging, which creates more waste. 
  • Impulse buying is easier online, and you may purchase more than you need. 

One report in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology found that because shoppers are more likely to bundle their purchases when shopping in a physical store, this was more eco friendly than online shopping.4 

On the other hand: 

  • The transportation emissions from individual cars going to the store can be higher than standard delivery emissions. 
  • The expanded options to shop for eco-friendly products may outweigh the impacts of packaging. 
  • And when we shop online, we are able to do more research and be more informed consumers when it comes to the brands we buy. 

Researchers at MIT found that online shopping produced 36% less carbon emissions than shopping in person — even when they factored in the impacts of packaging!5

There are many more scientific, peer-reviewed studies that support both of these opposing views. Basically, it’s really complicated. And the total environmental impact is a combination of individual shopping behaviors and the carbon footprint of the products themselves, as well as the shipping and packaging. 

is online shopping eco friendly

So What Is the Future of Sustainable Shopping? 

The “Amazon effect,” as many experts have dubbed it, has now made rush shipping the standard, rather than the exception. Consumers have come to expect two-day delivery as the minimum. 

However, at the same time we’ve seen an overwhelming shift in the way shoppers think about their purchases. In general, sustainability is becoming a more important factor. 

What’s interesting is that consumers who do more online shopping are also more likely to put sustainability first. In one survey, 72% of shoppers who receive 5+ packages each month listed eco-friendly practices as “important” or “very important” to their purchasing decisions. This number dropped to 65% for those who only order 1-2 packages per month.6

The same survey found that 82% of shoppers will accept longer shipping if they know it’s more eco-friendly. And more than 50% are willing to pay more for eco-friendly packaging or sustainable shipping methods. 

When we look at the generational effect, the numbers are clear. As consumers become more aware and concerned with environmental impacts, they make purchasing decisions to reflect that. While only 20% of Baby Boomers are willing to pay more for sustainable products, that percentage rises steadily with each generation up to 50% for Gen Z shoppers. And as consumer demands lead business models, the next generations have the power to make online shopping our eco-friendly future. 

What This Means for Cloud Paper

After careful consideration, we have decided to offer Cloud Paper bamboo toilet paper and paper towels through several platforms, including Amazon and GoPuff. 

Roughly 50% of online purchases in the United States occur through Amazon, and we feel we can have a bigger impact through this powerful platform. GoPuff offers the option to purchase a few rolls at a time, allowing customers to try the paper before committing to a larger box. 

We have also taken a few steps to ensure the process is as eco-friendly as possible. 

  • Cloud Paper continues to offset 2x the carbon emissions from shipping — even when purchased through these platforms! 
  • We chose not to launch a Prime shipping option at this time. Orders through Amazon are still processed from our own warehouse in order to avoid excess packaging. We are looking to secure more sustainable packaging solutions before expanding to Prime. 

cloud paper delivery amazon gopuff online order

How You Can Make Sustainable Choices When Shopping Online

Ready to be part of the sustainable online shopping solution? 

Here are a few easy ways to make your online shopping more eco-friendly: 

1. Curb the instant gratification 

Whenever you have the urge to make an online purchase, stop and think about whether you really need it. If it’s an essential item — like toilet paper 😉 — go ahead and buy it. If it’s nonessential, try writing it on a shopping list instead. At the end of the week, revisit the list and see if you still feel it’s a good purchase. Also consider if you could rent or borrow those items instead!

2. Limit the number of boxes 

This is especially true for small items like toothpaste, gel pens, or even books. If you keep that shopping list for a week or more, you may be able to order several items at once rather than receiving each in a separate shipment. (Remember, separate shipments add to shipping emissions as well as packaging waste, so this is a big one!) 

3. Check for sustainable brands 

When you’re shopping online, it’s easy to do some quick research on a brand’s sustainability practices. (Curious about Cloud Paper? Check out our Impact Page!)

4. Choose no-rush shipping 

Sometimes you really need it fast — like when your two-year-old drops the last roll of paper in the toilet and you just finished your morning coffee. GoPuff to the rescue! 

But when you have the luxury, choosing no-rush shipping allows your package to travel in the most energy efficient way possible. Standard delivery trucks run an optimized route to hundreds of homes in a single neighborhood. In doing so, it can potentially save all of those people from taking individual trips to the store. 

Pro-tip: If you’re shopping on Amazon, there’s often an added bonus to choose no-rush shipping. You may get digital credit toward ebooks, music, and movies, all while being more eco-friendly!

We hope this gives you some tools to take your sustainable lifestyle into the online shopping realm. Keep an eye out for Cloud Paper on your favorite online marketplace! We’ll be seeing you around. 

And if you haven’t tried Cloud Paper yet, now’s the perfect time! Check us out on Amazon or GoPuff today.