Shopping overseas is costing the environment, too

Mia Steiber 25 January 2017 NEWS

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Buying from overseas retailers is costing us around half a million tonnes of CO2 a year.

For Australians, shopping at overseas retailers is more than an economic issue. Given that the vast majority of online stores are in places like the United Kingdom and the USA, there is a significant amount of air and road travel involved in getting purchased items to your front door.

As a result, every item purchased from overseas comes with a vastly larger carbon footprint than items bought locally within Australia.

Assuming each parcel is on average a kilo and if we pick New York City as the location, the carbon footprint of Australian international shopping comes at the price of 400 thousand tonnes of CO2 per year.

Jenni Downes, research consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, explains that the environmental impact of online shopping is actually a very complex issue. It is interesting to know that in fact much current research supports the idea that online shopping is actually better for the environment.

“There’s a study by the Green Design Institute says that shopping online had approximately 30% less energy use and carbon dioxide emissions compared with the traditional retail shopping model.”

As a general rule, online products have fewer miles attached to them due to bulk shipping.

She says:”delivery mechanisms are generally a lot more efficient for online shopping. Delivery trucks can take lots of items from a single storage warehouse to customers along one route, while for in-store purchases, items are driven home by individual shoppers generally, in less fuel-efficient vehicles.”

However, the current research comes from countries where online purchasing is generally from the same continent if not the same country. In Australia, this is not the case.

“Many Australian online purchases are from overseas, and this is quite likely to involve air freight because it’s faster compared to traditional shipping and the extra cost is only minimal,” Downes says.

Since Australia is a long distance from shopping hubs like New York and London, air travel and air freight involved in sending products to Australia has a huge impact. According to WWF, the impact of air travel and jet fuel on the environment is so significant that if every Australian took a local holiday this year instead of flying, we’d use 1 million fewer global hectares - an area that could cover 784 football fields.

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It is important for consumers to recognise that products bought overseas and shipped to Australia will always have bigger carbon footprint that products that are bought and made locally. Downes recommends that consumers always try to look for local alternatives - it’s a significantly more sustainable way to shop.

“Consumers should ask themselves whether they could buy the same item from a local shop instead. Try to choose items that are both manufactured and sold from the closest location possible,” she says.

Mostly, Downes suggests that the impact of Australia overseas online shopping can be helped by reducing consumption.

“The most important thing for Australians to do when shopping is to ask, do you really need to buy that?”

Tips for sustainable shopping

Here are a few key tips for sustainable shopping in Australia as provided by the Institute for Sustainable Futures.

  • Ask yourself whether you could buy the item from a local shop instead.
  • Choose items that are both manufactured and sold from the closest location possible.
  • Avoid air freight, and wait that extra time.
  • Consolidate your orders and buy as many items from the same supplier as possible.
  • Don’t buy online items that have high return rates or that you really need to try on to decide e.g. shoes.
  • Avoid missed deliveries by agreeing times in advance or specifying that it can be left on the doorstep or with a neighbour if you’re not at home.
  • Identify and use stores and delivery services that utilise minimal and recyclable packaging.

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