Fees Apply After Check Out: The Environmental Costs of Online Shopping

By Elena Hsieh

Overconsumption. Retail Therapy. Impulsivity. Dopamine. Two Day Shipping. Capitalism. 

With the boom of mass production and the evergrowing ease and convenience of getting desired products at the click of a button, Americans have turned to online shopping as an alternative to going in stores. Adding the burden of the global pandemic, online shopping has even transformed from a point of convenience to a safe necessity, especially for the disabled and elderly. Looking at recent trends from 2014 to 2019, e-commerce sales ratios have nearly tripled globally. As of 2021, global online retail has reached an enormous $4.8 trillion in the U.S. alone, and it is projected to grow by 20% each year. With its growing popularity on such a large scale, it is worth considering all of its drawbacks. Do the benefits of online shopping really outweigh the environmental costs associated with the packaging and shipping of items? 

As a clerk working at the front desk of U.C. Berkeley’s Clark Kerr dormitory, I get a glimpse of how many online purchases students make on a daily basis. Broadly, we process over one hundred packages a day, amounting to just over one thousand every three months. Every morning, carriers from USPS, Amazon, and UPS haul in cartloads of boxes and bags, with FedEx, DHL, and OnTrac trickling in throughout the afternoon. From there, we sort through the packages by filing the bags and stacking the boxes. We then label the packages with stickers and mark identifying numbers, and finally process it to each student’s name on a portal database. This repetitive and lackluster process often leaves me contemplating the bouts of excessive overconsumption. I, too, have found myself scrolling aimlessly through online retailers more often than I would like to admit, which has sparked my interest in the environmental detriments of online shopping. 

Impulsivity and Dopamine

Impulsive shopping is not only a habitual cultural phenomenon, but rather, it is rooted in science—particularly when analyzing the concept of dopamine. In terms of the role of chemical hormones, dopamine hits when you buy something. With online shopping, that domine hits when you make the purchase and when it arrives and you open it, so you get a double benefit. Thus, biologically, more excitement is generated when shopping online as opposed to shopping in person. This is not helpful to the evergrowing trends of overconsumption, when ordering more items online becomes fundamentally easier than walking around a store to find the items you need. Today, despite being surrounded by abundance, Americans are still collecting more stuff. In 2018, we spent $240 billion on goods like jewelry, watches, luggage, books, and phones eleven though our population only grew by 17% during that time. However, in broad numbers, it is important to recognize that there are still benefits to online shopping in modern society. 

The Environmental Benefits of Shipping 

Oftentimes, when the detriments to online shopping are considered, shipping becomes the central area of concern. However, research shows that it may actually be beneficial to purchase items via an online store rather than to drive to a storefront. At face value, online shopping with slower shipping options has a smaller carbon footprint than driving to retail store to search, purchase, and return a product. When the founder of GreenStory, Navodit Babel, was interviewed on this matter, he maintained, “Online shopping is definitely more eco-friendly than brick-and-mortar shopping. The main cause of this chasm is the emissions produced from the customer driving to the store. The energy used to power a retail outlet also has an impact on the sustainability of physical shopping.” It is easy to condemn Americans’ obsession with online retail as unsustainable over-consumption, but when the numbers are pitted against in-store shopping, online shopping appears to be the more eco-friendly option. 

Think of delivery services as public transportation for your packages, where everyone’s package rides the same bus instead of a personal car. The average package produces just six ounces of carbon dioxide, which sounds diminutive but has to be multiplied by millions of deliveries. Going to the store to pick up one item averages around thirteen miles, producing  approximately 144 ounces of carbon dioxide, which is twenty-four times more than the delivered package. In essence, you would have to pick up twenty-four items in order to break even. A product you buy in-store has to be shipped from a manufacturer factory to a warehouse or storage facility to a store and finally to your home. However, when you buy something online, specifically with home delivery, it doesn’t have to be transported to the store before being transported to you. 

Not to mention, the carbon footprint of running a website alone is also drastically less than the energy it takes to power and maintain a building space. The author of “Decarbonizing Logistics,” Alan McKinnon, writes that “wherever your latest purchase comes from, transport from the store or warehouse to your home likely dominates the delivery footprint.” The MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics reinforces this sentiment, reporting that consumers who exclusively shopped online could have a carbon footprint (related to their shopping) almost two times smaller than that of a traditional shopper. Simply put, the lower carbon emissions from transportation paired with the greater accessibility for individuals like the elderly and the disabled point to the benefits of online shopping. 

It is important to realize that there are still many faults within such a seemingly convenient advancement. Just because you buy an item online, it doesn’t mean the item is sustainable because we must keep in mind supply chains, material sourcing, worker wages, sustainable materials, and more. 

The Detriments of Shipping

While there may be instances when shopping online is more environmentally conscious, there is another side to the coin when it comes to shipping. It is important to note that the the impact of a delivery depends heavily on the density of the addressee’s community: a rural community would not see a drastic difference in carbon emissions in driving to the nearest supermarket versus waiting for a delivery van, while a populated suburban community would theoretically see more environmental benefits from residents purchasing online and waiting for their delivery to their surrounding neighborhood. 

It is estimated that carbon emissions of products increase by 35% when shipped separately than when shipped together. Two-day shipping and overnighting packages triple the transportation emissions because the company no longer has the ability to fill up a van to deliver the parcels; they must ship it immediately because of the time barrier. The biggest polluter for delivery services is the ‘last mile,’ and those emissions are multiplied every time the delivery is unsuccessful. Same-day and instant delivery are the fastest-growing segments in the last-mile environment, growing 36% and 17% annually, respectively. Amazon, for example, already delivers to 72% of all customers within 24 hours. To add fuel to fire, between 12% and 60% of all deliveries are unsuccessful on the first try, so deliverers often make a second or third attempt. If they are still unsuccessful, the consumer must drive to a warehouse to pick up the package, negating all benefits in terms of carbon emissions. 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, posing shipping to be a greater detriment than a benefit to online shopping overall. 

Excessive Packaging

Another noticeable vice to online shopping to bear in mind is the packaging associated within the shipping and delivery process. Average boxes contain 20% of wasted space which shipping facilities fill with protective packaging which eventually finds its ways to waterways and landfills. The continued production of bubble mailers, packing peanuts, air pillows, and other infill materials on top of inadequate disposal further strains the environmental repercussions of shipping. Adding on, when consumers select the two-day shipping option, the products that are requested are not bundled in the same box because they come from different and multiple facilities. This increases packaging like boxes and excessive shipping materials, which generates more waste. Items shipped to stores and warehouses still use packaging materials, but mass packaging saves more materials in the long run than millions of individual parcels. Therefore, we must consider packaging as another factor in the equation of whether or not the online marketplace is truly as environmentally-friendly as it seems. 


The increase in free-time and the inaccessibility during the coronavirus pandemic has also increased online consumption, with 45% of consumers say they have purchased non-essential items during the lockdown. Unfortunately, this is not a single, irregular occurrence as commercial propaganda has been woven into holidays. For Christmas and Valentine’s Day, people buy their loved ones mass gifts which contribute to the average yearly emissions footprint of roughly 650 kg of CO2 for Christmas alone. For Easter and Halloween, people buy pounds of candy and other small knick knacks to stuff plastic eggs or treat bowls. It’s the constant buying and giving just to validate feelings into a tangible object that drives the mantra of capitalism, a tradition of stress, propaganda, personal desire, social pressure, and status signaling that society cannot rid itself of. 

Overall, the online marketplace is a major source driving carbon emissions related to transportation and production for three reasons: e-commerce requires additional packaging, customers purchase fewer items per online transaction, and multi-item orders often result in multiple deliveries. A study modeled that by 2050, the world could support the equivalent of three times the current global population if only global consumption levels drop by 60% back down to 1960 levels. This is why we must, as a society, immediately curb our consumeristic mindset before our population levels become dictated by our habits of overconsumption.

There Is Still Hope

Despite the dire environmental consequences that emerge with the rise of online consumption there have been futuristic efforts put forth to curb the detrimental effects of e-commerce. One of the main avenues of focus is shipping as the demand for urban last-mile delivery is expected to grow by 78% by 2030, leading to 36% more delivery vehicles in 100 cities around the world. In response to these trends, companies like Amazon have been experimenting with drone and ground-based robots for delivery services. There have even been apps that are currently being initiated to further the interconnectedness of a growing online consumer market. One such app is named Roadie, which is being created as a package hitchhiking system that connects your package with a delivery already heading in that direction.

While there have been progressive developments in some major companies, there are many things that we as individuals can do in an increasingly digital world. When it comes to checking out, try to purchase multiple items to be shipped in the same packaging and choose the slower shipping option if possible. It is also wise to research what you want online, then try to buy it from a local store you can walk, bus, or bike to. Buying secondhand is also a great alternative to purchasing from online retailers, ideally in local thrift stores (shoutout to U.C. Berkeley’s ReUse store!) or online on platforms like Depop, Poshmark, or Mercari. 

On the other side of the spectrum, sellers can be eco-forward by reducing the amount of packaging for a product by selecting the right sized box, choosing compostable or biodegradable packaging, or even reusing packaging. As a general rule of thumb, try to practice mindful consumerism: don’t buy stuff that you know you will return and consider if you really need an item before clicking ‘pay.’ At the end of the day, lower consumption is always better, and trends like capsule wardrobes, zero-waste households, and no-shopping challenges have emerged as a fresh change of pace in a capitalistic economy fueled by materialism.

Although I have presented many facets illustrating the darker side of the digital marketplace, I believe that online shopping as a whole should not be demonized or conflated with the direct demise of our planet. Rather, we ought to keep these habits in mind and educate ourselves to make the best moral decisions as consumers. In such a society where our lifestyles are evolving with rapid digital advancements, let us try to do our best in aspects as simple as online shopping in order to make the future a little greener. 


  1. https://inhabitat.com/the-pros-and-cons-of-online-versus-in-store-shopping/
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qWHJ29-s4U
  3. https://eco-age.com/resources/online-shopping-impact-on-environment/
  4. https://inhabitat.com/tag/carbon-dioxide
  5. https://ctl.mit.edu/sites/ctl.mit.edu/files/library/public/Dimitri-Weideli-Environmental-Analysis-of-US-Online-Shopping_0.pdf
  6. https://ethical.net/ethical/the-truth-about-online-shopping/
  7. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/01/carbon-emissions-online-shopping-solutions/
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0ckvo2Z5BU
  9. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/10/growing-online-sales-means-more-returns-and-trash-for-landfills.html
  10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qWHJ29-s4U

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