The perils of next day delivery: retail therapy vs the planet

Ed Willmott
29 April, 24

With e-commerce continuing to grow and outpace in-person shopping, Ed Willmott, managing director at Prova, explores the sustainability challenges of online buying and what retail businesses can do to reduce their environmental impact.

Did you know that the first ever online purchase was a Sting CD between two friends in Philadelphia back in 1994? In the UK, online shopping first hit the scene in the late 90’s but it didn’t start making a real dent in the retail market until the late 2010’s, with websites like eBay and Amazon emerging and burgeoning. Internet purchases were said to reach their peak in 2021, accounting for 37.8% of retail sales during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

In today’s fast-paced world, online shopping has become a staple for many of us. The convenience of ordering things with the click of a button, often with next-day delivery, has revolutionised the way we shop. However, behind this convenience lies a hidden cost that mustn’t be overlooked.

As online shopping continues to grow, so do associated carbon emissions and packaging waste. With delivery trucks crisscrossing the country to fulfil orders, hand delivering billions of items sandwiched between layers of plastic, cardboard and polystyrene, the environmental toll is significant. According to the latest data from Statista, for example, increasing demand for logistics services will cost us in the long run: global carbon dioxide emissions related to the sector will reach 25 million CO2 metric tonnes by 2030 – that’s a lot of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere for some quick retail therapy.

Many consumers simply don’t realise just how much online shopping contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions. The transportation of goods from warehouses, to distribution centres, to our doorsteps, accounts for a substantial portion of these emissions. To meet growing demand, delivery companies are expanding their fleet sizes – it’s estimated that by 2030, the number of delivery vehicles will increase by 36%, contributing to a further six billion kilograms of carbon emissions overall. What’s more, the faster you want your item delivered, the higher the environmental price.

Aside from emissions, online shopping also overlooks another issue: impulse buying. Brits collectively spend over £3 billion on impulse buys per month, more than half of this on clothing. With the incredible ease of browsing and purchasing items with just a few clicks, consumers are more prone to making spontaneous purchases. Unfortunately, many of these impulse buys end up discarded and contribute to the ever-growing mountain of landfill waste – 71% of people in the UK throw away  their impulse buys. Did you know, that 80% of products bought during last year’s Black Friday either ended up in landfill, were incinerated or otherwise improperly disposed of?

We’ve not even begun to discuss free returns – yet another purchase convenience that makes buying quick and sending back habitual for many shoppers. As a result, one in every three items bought online are returned in the UK – that’s a third more unnecessary delivery journeys either through road, rail, sea or air.

Despite all this, there are a slew of companies really driving innovation in the packaging and online retail space, one of which is ZigZag. ZigZag identifies opportunities for the repacking and redistribution of returned products and builds a solid infrastructure around the returns process to reduces parcel journeys by up to 65%, resulting in a huge reduction in the wastage and carbon footprint associated with retail returns. Additionally, through its innovative paperless returns scheme, ZigZag eliminates over 35 million sheets of paper from the returns process per year.

Delivery and returns accounts for a significant proportion of carbon emissions linked to e-commerce, and Zedify has disrupted the sector by significantly decarbonising first and last mile logistics on urban areas with its fleet of small electric and pedal-powered delivery vehicles. In fact, deliveries from Zedify’s bikes, trikes and quads typically use 97% less CO2 per delivery than a diesel van, and help towards creating cities with cleaner air and lower noise pollution.

At Prova, we were so impressed with Zedify’s pioneering business model that we invested in the company through our capital investments division. In the months since, the company has continued to lead the way as a major player in the sustainable retail marketplace.

While online shopping offers unparalleled convenience, we’ve also seen that it also comes hand-in-hand with negative environmental impacts. However, by embracing innovative solutions and adopting a circular economy approach, we can mitigate these impacts and pave the way for a more sustainable future.

It’s time for retail businesses to recognise the urgency of the situation and be more open to shifting their business models towards a more circular approach. By prioritising eco-friendly practices and investing in innovative solutions, such as electrification, plastics reduction side stream use and recycling, we can ensure that the terrific convenience of online shopping doesn’t come at the cost of our planet’s health.

For more information about Prova, or its strategic communications services for supply chain and waste management, visit

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