Making Online Shopping More Sustainable



If the whole goal is to minimize environmental impact, then the shipping materials used and the emissions generated while shipping your goods need to be factored into your decision to buy, just as much as the quality of the product itself.


Whether you’re new to the sustainable lifestyle or you’ve been dedicated for a while, researching sustainable products online is an ongoing activity. Reading up on material origins, production processes, and certifications, it can be quite a process to find just the thing you’re looking for, but there’s no better feeling than finally adding that perfect item to your cart. However, our single-minded research can also lead us to turn a blind eye to one of the less exciting but still extremely important aspects of buying sustainable products online: shipping. 



There are multiple choices for sustainable shipping materials available now, as well as research going into the development of even more options in the future. Whether you’re shipping food, clothes, makeup, or anything else, the only way you’ll know how it will be packaged is to ask. If there is no available information on a company’s website, reach out and make sure that your sustainable goods are packaged in kind with sustainable shipping materials. Here’s a run down of a few that are commonly used today.



Typically used as void fill or for cushioning, be aware that not all air pillows are created equal. While most can be recycled, they cannot be thrown into your usual recycling bin. Like plastic bags, deflated air pillows can get caught in and damage the machinery used at most recycling plants, so they must either be dropped off at specific recycling depots or, depending on the air pillow brand, you may be able to mail them back to the manufacturer for recycling at their plant. Some air pillows are both recyclable and biodegradable, although the time it takes for these to break down will vary depending on the material it’s made out of. Best practice would be to research the brand of air pillow you receive to determine the optimal way of disposing of it.



Most often in foam form, this type of packaging can be used in nearly any industry—it’s shock absorbent so it can protect fragile items, it’s thermally insulating so it keeps food cool and minimizes spoilage, and it’s even anti-static so it can safely cushion electronics. Most impressively it can be composted in both backyard and industrial facilities, or you can simply dissolve it in water at home. However, every miracle product has a downside, and for cornstarch packaging it’s that its production competes with the human and animal food supply of corn, potentially driving up the price of this essential crop. It will be important to monitor the balance between these uses of corn crops going forward as this type of packaging increases in popularity.



Reusable bags made from organic fabrics like cotton, hemp, and linen are a staple in the sustainable living starter kit, and companies have taken notice. Many smaller loose items come packaged in bags made of these materials, which can be reused as storage pouches as intended, or if the recipient is crafty then the material may be repurposed in some other way. Once worn out, these organic materials can usually biodegrade within 100 days, which is a far sight better than the 10,000 years it takes for a plastic bag to do the same (if at all).



Many people expect that online shopping should emit less carbon than shopping at brick-and-mortar stores as it seems intuitive that one delivery vehicle shipping multiple orders rather than multiple customer vehicles going out shopping would result in a lower carbon footprint. However, factors like expedited shipping, redeliveries, and returns complicate this reality. It’s important then to manage your shipping habits when shopping online to minimize your carbon footprint as much as possible.



With standard shipping, items are consolidated into as few boxes as possible, loaded into trucks that are packed as full as possible, and then shipped out on the most efficient delivery route so that the most deliveries can be made over the shortest distance possible, which altogether helps to keep carbon emissions down. When expedited shipping is selected, in the rush to get your goods delivered, all other environmental considerations go out the window. Emptier trucks will travel longer distances per delivery and will often make multiple deliveries per order. Always try to account for shipping time when ordering online, or if you’re really pressed for time then consider making an in-store purchase of a comparable sustainable item instead.



If you know there’s a high chance that you won’t be home to accept a delivery, always check to see if you can ship to a nearby post office, pickup point, or even neighbour’s house instead of to your own home. Otherwise, it’s often extremely difficult to change delivery instructions with a carrier once they’ve started the delivery (and redelivery) process, trapping you in a cycle of ever-increasing emissions as you wait for your schedule to overlap with that of the delivery worker. Similarly, return shipping raises the carbon footprint of online shopping as well, so always keep in mind to shop consciously. Be sure that whatever you’re buying, you truly want it and are intending to keep and use it for a long time. And while you’re at it, remember to double check size guides and product descriptions to reduce the likelihood of sizing issues or unwelcome surprises, too.



 +  Words: Dorice Lee, Luxiders Magazine Contributor

Dorice Lee is a freelance writer and editor from Vancouver, Canada who is endlessly fascinated by the ever-growing potential of the sustainability movement. Through her work she hopes to contribute to that movement by making the notion of sustainability approachable and accessible.
IG: @doricelee