the environmental cost of your online shopping habit

To celebrate Earth Day today, let's get serious about fashion.

by Briony Wright
22 April 2015, 4:00pm

It won't come as a huge surprise that fashion and beauty sales account for a significant portion of the multi-billion dollar online shopping industry. With e-commerce growing at a rate of around 25% a year, there are thousands of individually wrapped items of clothing and make-up tubes flying around in the air right now, making their way from a giant warehouse to the home of whoever happened to click 'buy now'.

Buying online is integral to the modern shopping experience and most of us engage with little-to-no thought of its environmental impact. It's difficult to argue with the luxurious novelty of buying a pair of discounted Alexander Wang sandals in the middle of the night. With people all over the world regularly buying, trying and returning, this means a pair of shoes might make four or more long-haul flights before they find their Cinderella. It's undeniably convenient, but what impact is this having on our planet?

This is where it gets tricky. If you're not getting your outfit from an online store which relies on a relatively efficient, centralized warehouse system, then you're likely driving in your non-fuel efficient car to the store with all the bright lights and pretty bags to buy what you need. Both methods have their environmental pitfalls. And while research suggests that around 23% of online shoppers are going into stores less often and saving energy that way, there are so many variables in the fashion supply chain - from the types of vehicles used, the distance traveled, the cubic volume of individual shipments, failed deliveries, returns and so on - that to argue for one form of shopping being more planet friendly than another is actually very difficult. Consumers and companies alike (especially those in the fast fashion sphere) need to be more mindful.

Carlie Ballard is one of the founders of Clean Cut, an Australian organization for ethical and sustainable fashion that helps connect local designers with global sustainable fashion movements by providing knowledge, awareness and support. Ballard also has her own label with physical and online stores, so she understands the challenges of operating in a competitive market place and turning a profit while still engaging in ethical practices across the board. She explains that Clean Cut is a place that can help designers and companies make small, consistent, and practical improvements. Small things like "websites being really honest with their size charts, imagery and color correcting properly is likely to help reduce the back and forth of returns."

There is evidence that things are slowly moving in the right direction. Companies are looking to implement broad, centralized fulfilment models where people pick up their packages from one location to improve efficiency and decrease the emissions created by retailers and consumers. Giant shipping companies like UPS are also investing millions of dollars in alternative fuel technologies to produce low-emission fleets or electric vehicles.

If you're into fashion and fun stuff in that general zone, shopping for clothes and beauty products is one of the joys of life. With so much so easily available, we have the power to vote with our purchases. While fast fashion is temptingly cheap and easy, you'll do yourself and the world a favor by spending more on a high quality item that you love and wear more. It makes sense.

This Friday, April 24,  is Fashion Revolution Day, so have a think about who made your clothes and their journey to your wardrobe. As Ballard puts it, "it's about paying respect and also making people connect with their garments. Many people have worked hard to make our clothes so let's respect them, respect the clothing and value it more than we do."


Text Briony Wright

Earth Day
online shopping
sustainable fashion
Briony Wright
fashion revolution day
clean cut