01/17/2014 08:02 EST | Updated 03/19/2014 05:59 EDT

Shop Online to Help the Environment

As retailers expand their online sales capabilities in response to consumer demand, there are five key ways they can educate their customers in understanding the reduced environmental impact from shopping online.

The 2013 holiday season underscored a fundamental shift by Canadians in shopping online.

Three in four Canadians approached the holidays expecting to purchase items online. Canadian online sales increased 29.33 per cent on Cyber Monday compared to 2012, with online sales growth outpacing traditional retail, and Canadian Black Friday online sales rose 19.19 per cent over last year.

This trend is understandable. Shopping online is convenient. It can occur virtually anywhere, at anytime from personal computers and mobile devices. It saves travel time. And it also saves energy. A study from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University confirms this, finding that E-commerce is the less energy-consumptive option approximately 80 per cent of the time, when compared with brick and mortar shopping.

As retailers expand their online sales capabilities in response to consumer demand, there are five key ways they can educate their customers in understanding the reduced environmental impact from shopping online.

  1. Less energy is consumed during the overall transport process. Purchasing online results in a reduction of miles driven during a product's journey to the consumer. For a brick and mortar purchase, a shopper must travel to and from the store to purchase items that required shipment from a central warehouse. Online purchases remove consumer travel from the environmental impact equation while using delivery services that optimize routes for fuel efficiency. Canada Post or private courier companies are already travelling these routes, with some urban environments even incorporating walking or biking into their normal deliveries. All of these elements result in a reduced carbon footprint.
  2. Packaging can be repurposed. Packaging used to ship purchases to a consumer's home can be repurposed numerous ways. Boxes can be re-used to simply ship gifts or holiday care packages to loved ones in other locales, used to wrap up gifts for in-person giving, or used for off-season storage of the item given or other items. A lesser-known use for some shipping supplies is fertilizer; certain shredded paper can actually be incorporated directly into compost.
  3. Responsibly-sourced materials are increasingly available. The pulp and paper industry is continually innovating around sustainable packaging, from making strong, light-weight packaging to increasing proportional use of post-consumer content. The industry is also responding to demand for renewable packaging materials that are responsibly grown. For example, paper and board packaging can be made from virgin fiber that is sustainably sourced from renewable plantations. Certain climates, like those around the earth's equatorial band, are optimal for accelerated tree growth and shortened maturity cycles for tree harvesting.
  4. Retailers are opening up to consumer input. Online retailers are actively reducing their environmental impact in response to consumers expressing interest in more options in package selection. For example, major retailers like Amazon are working with manufacturers to give customers the option of receiving their products boxed in "Frustration-Free Packaging" or to consolidate items into one shipment, thereby reducing the overall amount of packaging materials used.
  5. Online marketplaces foster reuse. When considering online shopping and efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle, don't forget to look beyond the packaging to the products themselves. Giving another life to a used product is a wonderful way shoppers can exercise their eco-friendly muscle. Online offerings through eBay, Craigslist and Etsy's vintage section, enable buying and selling of (re)used goods such as books and collectibles, which can also make for some of the most thoughtful and cherished gifts.

While the choice to shop online may still be rooted in convenience, the rising awareness around ways in which it supports more responsible purchasing is important for consumers and retailers who are seeking to reduce their impact on the planet.

Ian Lifshitz is North American director of sustainability & stakeholder relations at Asia Pulp and Paper Group (APP), the world's second largest pulp & paper company. To learn more about APP's community initiatives and sustainability efforts, visit