Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Sustainable shopping: We’re asking the wrong question

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There’s an ongoing debate about the sustainability of purchasing clothes and fashion products online versus in-store, each supported by individual studies on shopping in general that suggest the other is better.

Consumers are looking for an answer so they can choose the “more sustainable” options and feel better about their purchases.

But “online or in-store?” is the wrong question to ask when it comes to the environmental impacts of fashion and clothing products.

This debate misses the point by creating a false dichotomy – what matters more is how much you buy, from whom, where the product is made, and what it’s made from.

Fashion and clothing products are a key category for Australians, and they’re purchasing online and in-store an average of 56 items per year – well and truly beyond our planetary boundaries. In Australia, more than 24,000 clothing retail businesses operate, and consumer spending on fashion items accounts for $25 billion a year.

So, what are the environmental impacts of the way we shop in Australia?

Well, it depends. The Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) show that online shopping can be better and worse, depending on different practices and characteristics of the production and distribution system. Outcomes also vary significantly by brand and business depending on strong ethical and environmental values that can lower impacts in both in-store and online, compared to others more focused on profit.

Consumer and producer behaviour has an impact

LCA research on the environmental impacts of buying online versus in-store in Australia is limited. Research in the US and Europe can be insightful, though there are differences, such as producing and purchasing on the same continent.

Online purchases generally have lower greenhouse gas emissions (the main measure used for environmental impact) than shopping in-store, unless the store is very close by, or if online purchases are delivered by air mail, or returned at a very high rate.

For example, a study in the UK looking just at the last journey of an item to a customer’s home found that online unequivocally reduces carbon emissions when delivery was optimised rather than individualised.

Generally, retail stores require more buildings to receive, sort, store and sell products, which need to be constructed, powered and heated or cooled.

Delivery mechanisms are often more efficient for online shopping, as delivery trucks distribute optimally (compared to customers all making individual trips to a store).

Online purchases can require more packaging than in-store purchases, but this doesn’t offset the savings from the above. In some cases, more packaging can actually be required for in-store purchases if they have primary, secondary and tertiary packaging.

Importantly, we need to recognise that many of the impactful practices (for example, packaging and distribution) are critical elements of both in-store or online; it’s just that these are typically more visible to consumers for online purchases.

Consumer behaviour is central to how sustainable both shopping in-store and online can be.

Key aspects include how people travel to stores, how much of which products they buy, and how often they’re returning purchases, or buying multiple items with the intention to return some (known as “bracketing”).

The behaviour of retailers can also make a difference

There are many examples of retailers trying to reduce impacts of both in-store and online shopping.

Leading impact-reduction practices for online retailing, for example, include setting and monitoring against very low-target return rates, and providing detailed information (detailed fit, multiple sized models, etc).

Additionally, retailers can discourage unnecessary volume purchasing or over-consumption whether in-store or online.

Some companies are responding to sustainability research and/or consumer demand by looking for more “sustainable” forms of packaging.

Many brands are experimenting with “biodegradable” or “compostable” packaging; however, in Australia these are often worse than traditional plastic, because with Australia’s current bin system, in most households they have to be placed in landfill bins or risk contaminating organics bins and recycling. Moves to re-establish soft plastics recycling are progressing.

Optimising processes to reduce emissions of in-store and online purchases are also significant.

A Net Zero Momentum Tracker Retail Sector report by Climateworks Centre assessed the emission-reduction commitments and activities of 23 leading Australian retailers across different sector categories.

As of 2020, none had made a comprehensive net zero emissions by 2050 commitment, and only two – Amazon and Kathmandu – had net zero by 2050 commitments for a significant proportion of their value chain emissions, and these commitments were the most ambitious of the commitments assessed.

Another key behaviour for consumers is therefore what kind of fashion companies they choose to support.

What and how much we buy versus where and how

The purchase and then transport to home is only one step in the chain of the upstream production impacts, which include material extraction, processing and production, and downstream use and disposal decisions that also have significant impacts. And when considered across the value chain, how people buy is less of an issue than what and how much producers bring to the market and consumers then buy.

Overproduction and overconsumption are key issues here, and they’re critically harmful to the environment.

Transport, packaging and retail overheads are the heavy-hitters environmentally, above and beyond the impacts of the garment production (where approximately 70% of emissions are “upstream”). Cutting over-production of clothing products alongside over-consumption would drastically reduce the carbon footprint of the fashion industry, as well as reduce textile waste.

a jumper hugging a painting of the world

Australia imports 97% of fashion and clothing products from overseas retailers, which inherently impacts considerations for transport and transparency of how resources are extracted and processed, how products are made, by whom, and in what conditions.

The latter is important to highlight – beyond the environmental impact, there are also questions of social impact.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Fashion Revolution week (15-26 April), highlighting the importance of transparency in the world fashion supply and value chains following the tragic Rana Plaza collapse.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recently announced the Future Made in Australia plan to expedite advanced manufacturing and clean energy initiatives, which may present important opportunities for the growth of sovereign capabilities in textile and garment manufacturing and remanufacturing.

In recent years, the federal government has also been taking notice of textile waste ending up in landfill domestically or shipped overseas.

The government has also funded the design of a “shovel-ready” product stewardship scheme in 2021, which was launched in June 2023 by the Australian Fashion Council and the Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek.

Despite the leadership of the scheme’s voluntary founding members, Plibersek again indicated in February 2023 she was not shying away from mandating the scheme to further advance the timeline to reduce waste and transition to a circular economy.

We may eventually see further legislation in Australia that would include banning the destruction of unsold products (including faulty in-store or faulty returns), similar to what the EU parliament has now reached a preliminary agreement on.

There are several other pathways identified that Australia can adopt to lower our impact overall, including accelerating government sustainable procurement, incentivising use of recycling materials, and regulating textile transparency.

Individually, shoppers mindful of sustainable consumption should ignore the false debate between in-store versus online, and focus more on how much they buy, from whom, where it’s made, and what they do with it.

Learn more and act to improve your responsible consumption one small change in behaviour at a time. You can also listen to our podcasts (here, and here) on slowing down fashion.

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