For many people, staying at home and practicing physical distancing has been a very difficult adjustment. Some people have used this time at home to take up a new hobby or to practice a new skill.
A surprisingly popular coping mechanism has been “retail therapy," which is where people buy items for themselves as an attempt to improve their mood. With many physical stores having to shut down for safety reasons, some people have turned to online shopping to buy essential items.
Others are, however, using online shopping out of boredom and are buying more “things” that they do not necessarily need. While stimulating the economy is important during this difficult time, it is also important to consider the environmental costs of COVID-19 induced online shopping.
In a recent news release by Canada Post, they stated that people should expect their packages to be delayed because the volume of parcels they are dealing with is similar to that of the busiest days of the Holiday Season. Canada Post said that on May 19 they hit an all-time record high, delivering 2.1 million parcels to Canadians. That is three times the regular amount for this time of year. This type of increase doesn’t come without any environmental implications.
Many people are not leaving their homes and are not driving their own cars, and this is good for the environment. Online shopping opportunities, however, have people purchasing items from all over the world. They expect their orders to arrive at their front door in a timely fashion. As of 2018 the transportation sector was the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.
While some of these emissions came from personal vehicles on the road, a huge source comes from freight transportation and this amount has more than tripled in the last 30 years. That increase in emissions in combination with some of the busiest consecutive days Canada Post has ever experienced is no doubt costing the environment.
Greenhouse gas emissions from shipping goods all over is a concern on its own, but with these online orders we see even more environmental issues. When shipping more orders, there are increased amounts of packaging being used to protect the merchandise.
That creates significantly more waste. As well, shopping for products to fulfil our temporary desires or to ease short term anxiety will no doubt lead people to buy products that end-up in landfills relatively more quickly. Even if you take advantage of those easy free return policies, you are still doubling the carbon footprint of your online order. These are important things to consider before hitting that “Place Order” button.
Accessibility to many resources has become very difficult because of the pandemic. We see this in Northern Ontario communities, where some of the only stores people have access to have had to shut down. Making online shopping seem like the only viable option for some. This shift has strongly affected Northern Ontario small businesses as they struggle to find ways to stay afloat when they cannot offer their usual services.
Many stores that were forced to close their doors for the time being are adapting by offering curbside pickup services or local home deliveries. Small businesses in the north have also been building their presence on social media in order to try and encourage their community to support them during this difficult time. Many of these small businesses in the north rely solely on their local sales to stay open. Shopping local is already such an important part of making environmentally conscious decisions, as it reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions.
But shopping local has now become more important than ever. Thinking about the environment before you make an impulse online purchase is not a burdensome activity. You can help lessen the load on the environment by asking yourself a few questions before partaking in retail therapy and placing an online order;
- Do I need this, or do I just want this?
- Is there something I can do with the things I already have?
- If I need this, is there somewhere local I can get it?
- Is this order coming from a Canadian company?
- Can I do without expedited shipping to avoid added packaging?
There’s no doubt that this is a difficult time for many people. It is also an opportunity for communities to come together and support each other, the local economy and the environment. It might be easier sometimes to just place an online order and not worry about where the purchase is coming from. But now is our chance to connect and make decisions that will benefit more people than just ourselves.
Carbon emissions since the pandemic shutdown began have been 17% lower than at this time last year. That demonstrates how we have power right now, as physically distanced people, to make choices which lessen our carbon footprint further and support our environment and our communities. One of the easiest things we can do to help is to restrict our urge to just hit the order button. Instead, think first, and choose to shop local for all the things we actually need.
Abby Shillinglaw is a Research Analyst at NPI.