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, 9:25am

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

Buying online is integral to the modern shopping experience and most of us engage in it 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. And even better, there's little risk involved as returns are typically accepted without question. With people all over the world regularly buying, trying and returning, this means your 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?

And this is where it gets tricky. If you're not getting your outfit from an online store which relies on a relatively efficient, centralised warehouse for storage 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 travelled, 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. What we, and the companies making and selling the clothes, especially the producers of fast fashion, can do is be more mindful generally.

Carlie Ballard is one of the founders of Clean Cut, an Australian body for ethical and sustainable fashion helping to connect local designers to global sustainable fashion movements by providing knowledge, awareness and support. She also has her own label with a physical and online store, 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 improvements, which is really the practical answer. Small things like "websites being really honest with their size charts, imagery and colour correcting properly is likely to help reduce the back and forth of returns."

And there is evidence of things slowly moving in the right direction. Companies are looking to implement broad, centralised 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're really going to be doing yourself and the world a favour by spending more on something of quality that you love and wearing it more. It makes sense.

In line with this, this Friday 24th April is Fashion Revolution Day so wear your clothes inside out and have a think about who made them and their journey to your wardrobe. As Carlie from Clean Cut put 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
Briony Wright
fashion revolution day