The Impact of Online Shopping & COVID-19 On the Environment

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a major impact on consumer purchasing behavior. While many local businesses are shuttered, limited to curbside pick-up, or operating at reduced capacity, eCommerce is still available. With many people staying at home, either under government orders or out of caution, online shopping may be the only way to get non-essential goods. And let’s face it, when you’re stuck in the house with smart phone in hand, it’s difficult to stay away from the lure of online shopping.

Additionally, as businesses suffer financial strain of the economy many are offering massive deals to encourage customer spending. Mega companies are filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection or are closing a large number of brick and mortar stores, in part due to the effects of the pandemic. These companies include household name brands such as JC Penney, Modell’s Sporting Goods, True Religion, Pier 1 Imports, Nordstrom, AMC Theaters, and more. Online shopping plays a vital role in keeping businesses afloat.

Businesses Are Offering More Online Services

Not only are customers facing the decision of whether or not to purchase non-essential goods online, but many essential businesses are expanding their delivery services. Grocery stores, pharmacies, and restaurants are seeing an increase in demand as people are hesitant to leave their homes.

With the combination of impulse buying online and ordering essential goods for delivery, the reality is that there are more commercial vehicles on the road bringing items to peoples’ doors. One report states that some companies are seeing two to three times an increase in online sales as the pandemic continues.

Will this uptick in online shopping impact the environment? The answer is not so clear.

Carbon Emissions During COVID-19

Many environmental scientists use the level of carbon emissions entering Earth’s atmosphere as a gauge to determine how we are affecting the planet. The emission rate then provides us with a number that designates our “carbon footprint” which is how much impact our actions are having on the world.

These actions include everything from driving cars to using hot water, recycling to using electricity in our homes. One may surmise that due to the number of increased delivery vehicles on the road that these emissions would increase. However, when you look at the larger picture of the things that affect our planet, this may not be the case.

In fact, throughout the COVID-19 “lockdown” period carbon emissions dropped by more than 8% worldwide. Researchers believe that this is due to the significant reduction in individuals driving to work, to leisure activities, or out to do their own shopping. Fewer planes are flying and there are less cruise ships on the waterways. With no where to go, people simply aren’t traveling.

Are These Changes Permanent?

While the decrease in carbon emissions throughout COVID-19 stay-at-home orders is promising, researchers also state that it is most likely only temporary. As businesses re-open and individuals feel safe leaving the house again more vehicles will be on the road daily.

With more vehicles on the road carbon emission rates are bound to rise again. The impact we have on the world will likely return to a pre-COVID rate, or close to it.

Where Does Online Shopping Stand?

It seems that the increase of online shopping throughout COVID-19 did not negatively effect the environment, based on the rate of carbon emissions. However, even though many individuals are returning to work, will they be comfortable entering crowded shopping malls and stores to purchase goods in-person?

Furthermore, is the convenience of having essential goods delivered going to permanently impact consumer purchasing habits? Many people are turning to these services as a way to avoid contact with the public, but many may also decide that it’s the way to go moving into the future.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is not concrete. The immediate impact of online shopping during COVID-19 did not impact the environment in a negative way, but we are unsure of what the future holds. If people choose to continue ordering essential items online while also going about their daily routines of driving to the office, restaurants, and recreational activities, it’s possible that we will see carbon emissions rise even higher than they were pre-COVID.

Experts state that on average the world sees an increase of 1% of carbon emissions every year. The last time numbers were as low as they are currently was directly following WWII. While the dip relating to COVID-19 may be promising for 2020’s carbon footprint, it’s unlikely to last long-term.

However, only time will tell. As individuals become more conscious of the environment things may change. As the idea of working from home permanently gains acceptance, there may be fewer cars that return to the road for good. Monitoring and measuring these environmental impacts takes time, and we likely won’t know the lasting impact for years to come.

Originally published at on August 13, 2020.



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