Driven by the stay-at-home economy, online retailing surged and remained at peak levels throughout 2020. Early estimates suggest U.S. online sales grew by upwards of 50%2 (y/y) in 2020’s expanded holiday shopping season, with similar trajectories in other major e-commerce markets including China, Europe, Japan and elsewhere. Using average emissions results from the MIT study, the share shift to e-commerce resulted in approximately 2.4% fewer emissions per package.

Deeper DiveCarbon emissions from online shopping are on average 36% lower than those produced by in-store shopping.3 E-commerce was the more sustainable option in more than 75% of the base case trials by MIT. For each scenario, the study used 40,000 trials of a Monte Carlo simulation that modeled a variety of consumer behaviors that, in aggregate, are important indicators of environmental impact: number of items purchased, distance to/from store and logistics facility, returns and type of transport. In addition to the base case, 11 other scenarios were studied which changed an aspect of consumer behavior or retailer operations.


Consolidating deliveries on a “circular route” reduces transportation-related emissions by almost 90%.3 Transportation is the largest source of in-store shopping-related emissions and produces 2.5x the carbon emissions of e-commerce packaging, its largest carbon footprint contributor. In the case of direct-to-home delivery, a full standard van can replace more than 100 individual car trips.3 In turn, order consolidation and network optimization reduce costs for e-commerce operators.

Direct-to-home delivery from urban fulfilment centers can be a powerful lever to further decrease emissions. Built-out logistics networks which deliver goods from urban fulfilment centers close to consumers (rather than from facilities outside the urban core) can save some 50% of transport-related greenhouse gas emissions and reduce overall footprint per package by an average of 10%.3 Placing goods as close as possible to the end consumer minimizes final delivery distances and congestion. This improves delivery times and reduces costs by maximizing delivery fleet load capacities.

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