Online shopping or store purchase – which is more climate-friendly? Online trade is booming – especially since the pandemic. Amazon’s sales increased by more than a quarter in 2021 compared to the previous year and by around 68 percent compared to 2019. They also produce more greenhouse gases. In 2021 Amazon emitted 71.54 million tons of CO2-Equivalents. For comparison: Switzerland emitted 43.3 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents in 2020. This means that Amazon’s emissions have increased by 18 percent compared to the previous year. But the company says its carbon intensity has fallen by 1.9 percent, largely because they source 85 percent renewable electricity. This emerges from its sustainability report for 2021, which was published in early August. It could still be difficult for Amazon to meet its climate targets. In 2019, the company announced that it would become carbon neutral by 2040. So is it really more harmful to the climate to order online than to shop in a store, as one might initially think?
The management consultant Oliver Wyman, together with Logistics Advisory Experts GmbH, analyzed how much greenhouse gases are emitted by online trading compared to buying in a shop. The analysis was commissioned by Amazon last year, but Oliver Wyman says they worked independently. They evaluated official statistics and asked consumers how they shop. The companies come to the conclusion that online trading in Germany emits almost three times less CO2. This is because shops have a very high energy consumption, which explains around 60 percent of the CO2 emissions from shop purchases. Another factor is that most customers drive to the store. If they walked or cycled, their purchase would emit as much CO2 as an online purchase. The CO2 emissions of online purchases are mainly made up of the route from the retailer to the customer and the packaging.
The Federal Environment Agency comes to similar conclusions. It evaluated existing studies and summarized the results in a report at the end of 2020. Accordingly, online trading emits less CO2, which is mainly due to the energy consumption of the shops. However, the Federal Environment Agency also evaluated studies from 2003, where the German electricity mix increasingly came from fossil sources. If shops use more renewable electricity, emissions fall. In addition, the authors did not take into account returns, which often end up in the garbage and mean further emissions.
So there are two climate-friendly ways to shop. Either you walk or you ride your bike to a shop. Or you order on the Internet, but you should be sure that you don’t want to send anything back. The Federal Environment Agency also notes that trade and transport only account for one to ten percent of a product’s emissions. Three quarters are created while the product is being made. So it’s not just a question of where, but rather what we buy.