The net environmental impact of online shopping, beyond the substitution bias

Internet, digitalisation and access to technology have transformed contemporary consumption patterns and habits. Whether or not these changes hold beneficial or detrimental implications for society is subject to ongoing debate. Specifically concerning the environmental impacts of online and omnichannel retail, claims have been made on both sides: crediting the efficiency of home deliveries versus individual shopping trips on the one hand and pointing out complex consumer behaviour on the other hand. Despite intensive research efforts, a solid consensus lacks. The disperse and contradicting scientific knowledge base that is currently available prevents policymakers and practitioners from implementing sustainability improving measures and from steering consumers towards sustainable practices. Supported by a systematic review of the literature, this article presents a framework for understanding the net environmental sustainability of shopping. The debate is broken down in three impact categories that need to be considered simultaneously: individual purchases, consumer behaviour and consumption geography. The majority of research articles focus on the environmental impact of purchasing a single item or a basket of items, in which in-store purchases are substituted by purchases online. Such studies conclude in favour of e-commerce. The balance shifts when taking changes in behaviour and geography into consideration. While behavioural reflections are on the rise, hardly any empirical work takes the spatial (re)organisation of businesses and consumers into account. The article surpasses the case-study approach and in doing so comprises the body of literature in a solid framework that is able to guide future discussions and research in more sustainable directions.


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