Thanks to noissue for sponsoring this post so I could do a deep-dive into the sustainability of online shopping.
How the Internet Has Transformed Sustainable Shopping
One of the great advantages of the rise of online shopping is that it has simultaneously allowed worldwide access to formerly niche, boutique-only, artisan goods and made it possible for small and independent brands to make a name for themselves without the need for huge overhead.
Add to that greater access to educational resources thanks to the proliferation of sites and blogs dedicated to the cause – along with search engines to discover them – and you’ve got a recipe for real progress.
And there’s ample evidence to suggest that this combination of resources has actually had an effect:
The sustainable personal care and food sector grew by about 20% from 2014 to 2018 (compare that to about 5% in the general market) and packaged products with sustainability claims on the label were responsible for 50% of growth in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry from 2013 to 2018.
According to the Harvard Business Review:
Consumers are voting with their dollars — against unsustainable brands. The legacy companies that will thrive are those that accept this shift and are willing to pivot, such as PepsiCo and Unilever.
According to a 2016 report conducted in the UK, more than half of young consumers find sustainability important when considering their purchases. The 2019 Pulse of Fashion Report suggests that 75% consider sustainability before making a purchase.
The Fashion Law reports that:
Many brands are using sustainable cotton initiatives to reduce water, energy and chemical use, new dyeing technology to reduce water consumption by up to 50 percent, as well as numerous energy and chemical saving schemes throughout the supply chain. In the UK, the result of this work is percolating through to retailers, with a reduction in the carbon and water footprints per ton of clothing of 8 percent and 7 percent respectively since 2012.
Hard data on sustainable fashion sector growth is still hard to pin down, however.
That has to do with a combination of factors, including the fact that there is some confusion around what constitutes a sustainable garment, and which brands “count” as sustainable when there are so many factors to consider (I discuss this quandary in my Is Everlane Ethical post).
Still, it’s clear that sustainable consumerism is something a much larger portion of the population is considering these days. Pair that with online shopping trends – it increased by 15% last year – and it’s safe to say that lots and lots of packages filled with “sustainable” goods are being scattered across the world searching for the loving arms of their buyers.
Do you see the problem here?
Fossil Fuels Use in Consumer Goods Industry
In 2018, 28% of energy used in the US, garnered largely from fossil fuels, was dedicated to the transport of people and goods.
But that’s not even the main problem. The bigger issue, by far, has to do with the literal shipping of goods (in ships) across the world:
“If shipping was a country, it would be the sixth-largest polluter in the world,” says Nerijus Poskus of the shipping technology company Flexport. “About 3% of global emissions are released by ocean freight shipping.” (Source)
The good news is that significant progress is being made on the shipping front, with hydrogen fuel currently being tested across markets to see if it can eventually replace the dirty fuel typically used in shipping.
But there’s another polluter in the shipping industry that we don’t always consider…
What About Packaging Waste?
It doesn’t take a researcher to know that packaging is a problem. If you go back through your packages from online purchases, what do you see?
Most likely, you received your goods in a plastic mailer or cardboard box (maybe it was laminated in plasticated branding). You opened it up to find packing peanuts, bubble wrap – or, if the shipper was conscientious, some kind of post-consumer recycled paper – but the garments themselves were individually wrapped in clear plastic bags, called poly bags.
According to Alden Wicker’s research for VOX, those clear plastic bags that your clothing comes in are considered essential for protecting it against the dangers of world travel in a globalized garment industry:
From my conversations with brands large and small, I gleaned that most overseas consumer product factories — and all garment factories — from tiny sewing workshops to giant 6,000-person factories, ship finished products in plastic polybags of their choosing. Because if they don’t, the goods wouldn’t make it to you in the condition that you require.
Wicker points out that polybags are actually recyclable, which would be great if anyone was willing to recycle them. But increasingly, it’s not worth the money to do so. As a result, you end up with hundreds of thousands of plastic bags cluttering landfills, waiting in storerooms until the day someone is willing to recycle them, or drifting off to sea, where they impact ocean animals and ecosystems.
Online shopping is great! Sustainable fashion is the best! But what does it mean that these two things that undeniably spell progress are still tied up with trash?
For one, it’s a reminder that no choice is a perfect one, and to insist that you can free yourself from complicity by making the exact. right. choice. is simply not a meaningful way forward. (This is actually the catalyzing premise of the final season of The Good Place!)
I say this mostly to remind you that curling up into a little ball at this point in the post won’t help that much, and neither will determining to totally opt out of the system.
The good news is that there has been progress on the packaging front.
noissue is a New Zealand-based packaging company that solves two problems for small scale, sustainable e-commerce brands: they make compostable, eco-friendly packaging with low order minimums.
The owners didn’t intend to start a packaging company. They were actually working to launch a consumer goods brands and couldn’t find the kind of packaging they needed at a scale they could afford.
They started by producing FSC-certified tissue paper using soy ink and have since then launched 100% compostable mailers.
Noissue Compostable Mailers
Our compostable mailers are made from a combination of PBAT, a bio based polymer which is compostable, and PLA which is made up of plant materials such as regular ﬁeld corn and wheat straw. Our use of PLA makes up barely 0.05% of the annual global corn crop, making it an incredibly low-impact resource. Read on for further certifications and information.
The term “compostable” can be a bit misleading, because some products – particularly things like “compostable” plates and serving ware – are only compostable in an industrial facility.
By contrast, noissue’s mailers will compost in your – or your neighbor’s – backyard compost bin in around 180 days. This is the only appropriate option for packaging geared toward individual consumers, in my opinion, because it’s actually something an individual can participate in without having access to robust infrastructure.
For Sustainable Brands
While I think that this information is important for everyone, I wrote this post with my ethical brand owner friends in mind.
Noissue’s minimums – you only have to order 100 mailers at a time, for instance – and their commitment to innovating in sustainable packaging without sacrificing aesthetics is exactly what this industry needs.
Sustainability can often feel like the luxury option, with higher start-up costs leading to higher consumer costs, making it nearly impossible for accessibility-minded brands to meet all of their sustainability goals.
One step forward, in the case of packaging, won’t solve the fashion industry’s problems, but it may mean that a small brand can assert itself in the market in more competitive ways, and lead the charge on building a more sustainable future.
So, Is Online Shopping Eco Friendly?
Not exactly, but it’s not the worst choice either.
On the consumer end of things, I would argue that it’s still better to choose a well-made garment in a style you like from a more sustainable brand – or even secondhand – through an online source if that’s what will best suit your needs.
Overproduction and overconsumption are considerably larger polluters than shipping and packaging, so it’s better to make a smart choice the first time than to waffle back and forth just for the sake of trying to be perfect.
The number one thing you can do right now to be more eco-friendly is to reduce how much you consume. But when that isn’t an option, make the best choice you can within your means. Like The Good Place reminds us, we’re all doomed if we’re trying to remove ourselves from complicity. Instead, let’s celebrate education, self-discipline, and exciting innovations in the sustainable fashion industry.