Is E-Commerce Really Better For the Environment Than Traditional Retail?

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While online heavyweights are quick to boast about the environmental impact of e-commerce, this holiday shopping season millions of eco-conscious consumers face a largely unanswered question.


Illustration: Costanza Milano for BoF



As the gift-giving season ramps up, so too does the battle between brick-and-mortar and digital retailers for holiday dollars. But given that consumers play an increasingly crucial role in the effort to combat global warning, is e-commerce or traditional retail greener?

Online heavyweights are quick to boast about the environmental benefits of e-commerce. On its site, Amazon declares: “Online shopping is inherently more environmentally friendly than traditional retailing.” While conventional knowledge might suggest so, several studies published in recent years indicate that the reality might not be as black-and-white as Amazon claims.

The carbon footprint (greenhouse gases emitted as a consequence of an individual’s activities) generated while shopping is dependent upon a range of factors, from IT infrastructure and packaging to vehicle emissions. For instance, brick-and-mortar shoppers in the cycling-friendly Netherlands may yield lower carbon emissions per person than in the American Midwest, where people are more dependent on their cars.

Unable to account for every particular hypothetical scenario, researchers have studied consumer patterns through the use of the following archetypes:

The Traditional Shopper

The Traditional Shopper is one whose shopping journey is conducted entirely in-person, from search to purchase to return. With no use of e-commerce, the Traditional Shopper represents a shrinking demographic. According to research from MIT’s Center for Logistics and Transportation, customer travel accounts for more than 75 percent of greenhouse emissions in this wholly-offline process, yielding approximately 3.1kg carbon dioxide per journey by the average Traditional Shopper in an urban centre.

More minor emissions come from packaging and the overheads of displaying goods in-store, as well as returns. According to Accenture, apparel will account for 78 percent of gifts in the US during the upcoming holiday, making returns a significant factor. While an optimised parcel pick-up for an online return yields a minimal contribution in greenhouse emissions, an individual physically driving back to the store is much worse for the environment.

The Cybernaut

The Cybernaut’s shopping journey is conducted entirely online: from researching products to payment, to arranging a return.

Despite the proliferation of e-commerce across the retail landscape, Deloitte’s research shows that only 12 percent of US consumers are not planning to visit any traditional retailers during the holiday season.

According to Dr. Alexis Bateman, director of the Responsible Supply Chain Lab at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, “Major emission factors [for the Cybernaut] include greater IT infrastructure to support computing, [which supports] e-commerce, [and] increased packaging in some cases.”

Nevertheless, by completing all steps online, the Cybernaut bypasses travel to and from stores, greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and yielding a carbon footprint approximately 50 percent lower than that of the traditional shopper.

The Modern Shopper

While the above two models represent pure paths for the consumer, they are archetypes that fail to accurately reflect the majority of shoppers.

Engaged in an omnichannel experience, the Modern Shopper represents a hybrid between the Traditional Shopper and the Cybernaut. For this archetype, the research process might involve both brick-and-mortar and digital stores, before ultimately making a purchase online.

In a bid to counter the rise of e-commerce, many physical retailers are making efforts to increase foot traffic. But unfortunately for both them and the environment, more people in-store does not translate into a higher transaction rate. Deloitte’s research predicts that 48 percent of US consumers will check out products in a physical store before actually buying online.

The route to purchase is rarely a direct one, however. In the past, there was only one touch-point — the point of transaction — but today, consumers interact with retailers in multiple ways both offline and online, blurring the lines between entertainment and intent to purchase.

“Unfortunately, there is no straight answer to the question whether online or in-store shopping is better to the environment,” says Dr. Patricia Van Loon, a research fellow at INSEAD’s Social Innovation Centre and senior researcher at Viktoria Swedish ICT, a non-profit research institute that is part of RISE Research Institutes of Sweden.

Dr. Bateman echoes this remark. “E-commerce has lower total emissions because customer trips are greatly reduced. But there are caveats to this,” she warns. “Each situation is unique, so you can never really say e-commerce is always better for the environment.”

By participating in the process of “showrooming,” for instance — trying a product in-person before buying online — the Modern Shopper increases their carbon footprint in transportation, offsetting any deductions related to the ultimate e-commerce purchase.

“Associated physical trips by consumers can add significant amounts of carbon to the online purchase,” says Dr. Van Loon. “Picking up items after a failed delivery or a click-and-collect point, returning unwanted items, or other complementary shopping trips all increase the carbon footprint.”

According to MIT, transport-related greenhouse gas emissions for the Modern Shopper account for over 1kg of carbon dioxide emissions (over a third of the shopper’s total carbon footprint).

Modern delivery methods pose a significant toll on the environment too. In 2005, when Amazon introduced its ‘Prime’ membership, offering free two-day shipping on all eligible purchases for an annual flat rate, such rapid delivery was still novel. Since then, Amazon has amassed about 63 million Prime members globally, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, and in major cities, free two-day shipping has become nearly as commonplace as online shopping itself.

The proliferation of high-speed delivery is not without environmental impact. This season, three-to-four-day shipping is not sufficiently “fast” for US shoppers, according to Deloitte, and they expect lower fees for expedited delivery — shifting consumer expectations and giving rise to the Impatient Modern Shopper.

“Obviously, same-day delivery and tight delivery slots make it more challenging for the delivery company to combine shipments in the same neighbourhood,” explains Dr. Van Loon. “It therefore increases the distance driven per item and consequently the carbon footprint.”

Indeed, the extra emissions of expedited freight transportations account for a nearly 0.75kg increase in carbon dioxide emissions per shopper, more than double that of non-expedited delivery methods and enough to offset the green benefits of not travelling to a physical store — rendering the Impatient Modern Shopper archetype the least environmentally friendly of the four.

The Bottom Line

For those who are serious about reducing their carbon footprint this holiday season, Amazon is right: the numbers show that e-commerce is better for the environment — as long as the entire process remains digital from start to finish. But this path might not be feasible for many consumers.

Consumers who find it necessary to purchase in-person can greatly reduce their carbon emissions by “webrooming,” or researching online. This shopping process emits only approximately 0.2kg more carbon dioxide than conducting the entire journey digitally, so even those who purchase at a brick-and-mortar retailer can cut their environmental impact by up to 50 percent.

The most green holiday shopper is digitally-savvy, researching and purchasing online well in advance — avoiding next-day or same-day delivery. They opt for eco-friendly packaging wherever possible, and if they do need to visit a brick-and-mortar store, they will coordinate shopping trips with other errands, reducing the total distance travelled by vehicle. Perhaps most fundamentally for the green holiday shopper, they also understand that what and where they buy is as important as how they buy it.

“Some of the biggest sources of environmental impact actually lie upstream in a supply chain (materials and producer level),” says Dr. Bateman. “So purchasing products from responsible companies can actually lead to some of the biggest savings, over online versus brick-and-mortar purchasing decision.”

*This story first appeared on Business of Fashion

Sustainable Wearables

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The NazcAlpaca shirt combines technology with luxury natural fibers for comfort, performance and aesthetics for the high end apparel market. Concept, design and development: Marina Toeters,, Martijn ten Bhömer and Iztok Klančar. Model: Kristel van Walen

Overcoming Issues of Energy and Consumer Engagement.

Over the past decade, environmental issues have become a major concern for the textile, clothing, footwear and related industries. For wearable technology, the energy needed to operate devices and refinements in the technologies and fabrics has been in focus for decades. But now that significant development in these areas is making scalable consumer products a reality, attention should shift to the environmental impact of the sector. While some best practices from the clothing and technology sectors can be applied, wearable technology has its own unique challenges that need to be addressed.

The Question of Energy

Much attention has been given to the provision of power for electronics in clothing but there is, as yet, relatively little consideration given to the embodied energy of these products. In an assessment of embodied energy, an account is made of all the energy needed from raw materials, to manufacturing, transport, use, maintenance, reuse and end of life.

In the building industry, embodied energy has long been embraced during the design stage. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification in buildings address embodied energy (as well as water) use in buildings and acts as an incentive to the industry. Consumers know that their building will be energy efficient and have a cost saving for them, as well as environmental benefit.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DOE) jointly operate the Energy Star program for products, as well as buildings. The U.S. government’s approach is to urge consumers to think of a product as having two price tags: the first is a purchase price and the second the cost of operating white goods, in particular, over their lifetime, which can be a decade or more.

As a relatively young product area, wearable technology does not have a blueprint, but it urgently needs one. This will come and can either emerge from industry or from government. It would be much better to come from the former. Within wearable technology, energy sources are sought that are small, lightweight, efficient, flexible, rechargeable, machine washable and long lasting. Although rarely driven by environmental concerns, many of the innovations being developed do provide benefit in this area.

Looking to provide a flexible and efficient battery for the market, South Korea-based Jenex has developed “J Flex.” The manufacturers claim that the lithium battery offers six times the capacity of cells currently being used in smartphones. Beyond flexible, it can be folded or crumpled and still perform. Wear tests have been undertaken on the battery putting it through in excess of 200,000 folding cycles, and it retained full performance.

In the 1990s researchers, such as Thad Starner at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), were visionary in looking at alternative sources of power, specifically the ability of the user to provide energy for their devices through their own movement, body heat and even breathing. Although photovoltaics are attracting most attention as an alternative energy source, the user-as-power source continues to attract research and spur development.

Researchers at Hong Kong Polytechnic University have looked at the potential for the upper torso and footfall to be harnessed as an energy source. At Hanyang University in South Korea and the University of Oxford in England researchers are looking at the development of a textile substrate-based tribolectric nanogenerator (T-TENG) as a self-powering fabric that is easy and environmentally friendly to fabricate.

Scalability is one issue to be addressed in these developments; another is consumers’ expectations concerning energy sources. For a consumer generation accustomed to transmitting a precise amount of power at the flick of a switch, the obstacle to overcome may prove to be marketing products, rather than solving technical issues.

Emotional Engagement

Performance is not enough for the consumer, and the interests of the fashion and sportswear industries are crucial in driving aesthetics in wearable technology. Without this it simply becomes another gadget with little emotional engagement for the consumer. In terms of longevity, the lifespan is shortened and the garment is less likely to be worn, repaired or given a second life after the first owner is through with it. Enhanced visual and tactile aesthetics are a start; we are seeing garments appear on the fashion runway and luxury brands showing interest.

In terms of materiality, consumers are more drawn to natural, rather than man-made, materials. While synthetics still dominate the wearable technology market, there are some natural fibers starting to emerge. Eunjeong Jeon’s Disguise Garment uses felted Merino wool, sensors and LED’s to enhance the wearer’s mood and well-being. The fabric is structured to trap air and encapsulate the technology and lighting, building on clothing’s inherent ability to offer protection and comfort to the wearer.

Dutch researchers Martijn ten Bhomer and Marina Toeters with Bear Creek Mining are developing smart Alpaca underwear to measure vital health information. Concept, design and development: Marina Toeters,, Martijn ten Bhömer and Iztok Klančar.

NazcAlpaca brings together Alpaca wool and electronics to provide comfort, aesthetics and performance with smart underwear that can measure vital health information. The development comes from Martijn ten Bhomer and Marina Toeters and the Bear Creek Mining Company in Peru and is at the proof-of-concept stage.LED lights in the back of the garment, for instance, illuminate and cause the garment to vibrate if the wearer is under threat out of their line of sight.

Prototypes of a shirt and scarf are designed for the office worker concerned about air quality and temperature. The garments are combined with an app so that the wearer’s body is monitored using heart rate and breathing sensors. Data is gathered, measured and communicated to the wearer to encourage exercise with the aim of creating a better and less stressful work environment.


In May this year, Microsoft filed a patent application for a Modular Wearable Device for Conveying Affective State (US2016/0133151 A1). Effectively intended to function as a mood shirt that can respond to the wearers’ states of stress, sadness, excitement, calm and happiness. Actuation cells use temperature, vibration/pressure, light and audio to stimulate changes. These are aimed at improving the wearer’s sense of well-being, calming someone who is stressed though music or applied pressure, for instance.

Beyond the health implications, there are potential applications in many areas, in particular entertainment and gaming.

One of the aspects of wearable technology that brings unique environmental challenges is its hybrid nature. The industry cannot solve issues, such as embodied energy or the need for better emotional engagement in our products, in isolation. Change is a slow process and as we continue to look for more in our suppliers and providers, it is also important to acknowledge where incremental improvements and changes in mind-set are made.

*This story first appeared on Advanced Textiles Source

Naturally Brilliant

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If nature has figured out a pretty good way to do something, it would make sense to try and copy it, right?

Lizards that change color for camouflage … moisture that beads up and rolls right off a lotus leaf … the aerodynamics of a humpback whale, pirouetting under water … tree frogs that climb a smooth, vertical surface.

Areas as diverse as transportation, energy, communication, medicine, agriculture and architecture are all finding useful innovations based in the natural world that will improve the way we solve problems and create new products—including textiles.

In his article, “Biomimetics and biotextiles,” Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar points out examples of research that could change the way we think about stain-repellant treatments, insect repellency, antibacterials and other performance qualities desirable in many textiles. And these are just some of the developments.

The Biomimicry Institute, based in Missoula, Mont., uses this definition. “Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.”

Notice that word “sustainable.” The beauty of emulating nature’s own magic is that the solutions are so often more sustainable than the ones we’ve been using, and if, in particular, it involves an organic material readily available, it’s likely to be very economical, as well.

So if all this is the case, why isn’t this just the way we do things?

Well, first we had to figure out how that tree frog could so easily adhere to a vertical surface—while sleeping. Then we had to figure out the structure of the frog’s foot pads so we could figure out a way to make them to people scale. Then we had to get the backing to commercialize it, the legal support to patent it, never mind the approval of whatever government agency is applicable. Something like that.

Still, it is happening, and it’s happening at a quicker pace because of cost and sustainability issues. The interest in tree frogs’ mind-boggling climbing ability is relatively old news in this field. In fact, the science behind all sorts of flora and fauna is prompting research and innovations that could impact so many facets of our lives. Textiles, which can be engineered in almost limitless ways, are figuring into the picture.

Some examples …

Have you heard about earthworm-inspired filtration for healthier soil? University students in Oregon figured this one out.

Scientists discovered that the Galapogos Shark had no bacteria on its skin. Sharklet Technologies took this research and turned it into “Sharkskin” wound dressing, designed particularly for battlefield wounds, to speed healing and reduce patient discomfort, and other bacteria-repelling products.

Though not precisely “biomimicry,” the Watercube at the Beijing Olympics copied the structure of soap bubbles to create a facility that was earthquake resistant, gathered solar energy to heat the pool, and naturally shed the city’s dust and smog grime when it rained.

There’s an example “closer to home, too; how would we ever get along without Velcro®?

*This story first appeared on Advanced Textiles Source


Can China’s textile industry clean up its supply chain?

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By Racheal Meiers, Director, Inclusive Economy

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

As part of BSR’s Business Leadership for an Inclusive Economy initiative, we are running an interview series with thought leaders from business, government, civil society, academia and philanthropy.

Their voices and perspectives will help deepen our conversation on how we can build a more inclusive economy and how business most effectively can contribute to that vision.

We spoke to Liang Xiaohui, head of social responsibility for the China National Textile and Apparel Council (CNTAC), about striving for good jobs in textile manufacturing, technology changes and impacts on workers and an inclusive future for the industry in China.

Racheal Meiers: What does it mean to be included in the economy? How does the textile industry make the economy more inclusive?

China National Textile and Apparel Council

Liang Xiaohui, head of social responsibility for the China National Textile and Apparel Council (CNTAC).

Liang Xiaohui: To be included in the economy fundamentally means to share the results of social and economic development by creating an equal opportunity for everybody to be active in economic activities and decisions.

Specifically, the textile industry creates jobs for people without a lot of education and skills — that’s why manufacturing is quite important in an economy, especially in developing countries.

To achieve an inclusive economy, it’s very important for businesses and also governments to think about how the interests of employers and employees can be balanced — and the voices of workers can be heard and their concerns can be addressed. As we look toward the future, this balance will be even more important.

For instance, if we can upgrade technologies and equipment and, at the same time, educate workers and let them upgrade themselves so that they have opportunities for better, higher paid, higher skilled jobs, that will be a big step toward achieving an inclusive economy in our sector.

Meiers: Given where things are in China right now, with changes in the labor force and competition from other countries in manufacturing, how do you see inclusion as fitting into this context?

Liang: In this context, we can no longer rely on lower wages or lax environmental practices to be competitive; we have to evolve to a higher stage of the supply chain to compete.

Getting there will take two critical elements: The first one is to be innovative, such as upgrading technologies in manufacturing; and the second is building a workforce of people that can effectively work with and work for innovations. To support our efforts to upgrade our industry, we have to build up our human resources potential and give people, especially existing textile workers, more opportunities to learn expertise and skills.

Meiers: How are your member companies approaching technology upgrades and related labor force engagement?

Liang: That’s really a big question, and I cannot give you a general answer because we have almost half a million textile and garment companies in China. But I do see that many companies are working hard to incorporate technology tools for different purposes, such as reducing pollution and increasing efficiency.

A very popular idea in our industry now is to exchange human power with machines, which is in part driven by the lack of skilled workers, and even a shortage of low- and unskilled workers in China in recent years.

At the same time, there are factories that are working to invest in their workforces. They are calling on government and associations like ours to improve education and vocational training to support upgraded skills in the industry. Some factories are also taking these steps themselves.

For example, one factory I recently visited is investing a lot of money to purchase very advanced equipment from Europe. To support these technology upgrades, they have also started their own academy, a professional training school where they can train their workers and future employees on how to work with the new equipment.

This factory sees investments in the expertise and skills of their workers as part of the process of upgrading their technology hardware. And they also understand it will be important to pay higher wages to the workers who become capable of operating the new machines.

Meiers: That’s an encouraging example. How is the Chinese government getting involved in these issues of workforce skill development, to support technology upgrades in the manufacturing industry?

Liang: The government has been monitoring this issue for many years. Recent policies from 2014 require that a minimum of 30 percent of local additional fees on education shall be used for vocational education, and the enrollment of vocational schools should raise from about 30 million in 2012 to more than 38 million in 2020, almost a 30 percent increase.

This will help transfer more young people into vocational schools, making them advanced industry workers with skills and expertise. The young people see where the economy is going and understand that to be included in that future economy, they need to know the skills required by it.

For example, there was a story last year of a young man who quit Peking University to enroll in an occupational school to become an auto mechanic — he did this because he liked the work, but he also knew that the auto maintenance industry in China is very underdeveloped for the demand that is coming.

Meiers: Shifting gears a little bit, let’s talk about the current workforce in textile manufacturing. Who are some of the most vulnerable people that are taking these jobs, and how do you work with your CNTAC members to identify these groups of people and put in place mechanisms to support them?  

Liang: I think the most vulnerable group in the industry is migrant women workers in their 30s and 40s. In the labor market, in the factory, they are not in a very good position. They have very low representation in management, and they have low levels of training and education as compared with male peers. The reason for this is that most of them come from villages and underdeveloped regions, where women have a very low status and so don’t receive as much education and opportunity.

We are actually doing some work with BSR to support these women, and all women workers in the industry. Though more than 65 percent of workers in the industry are women, they hold very few positions in management. Working with BSR, and learning from your expertise and experience supporting women’s empowerment in China, we are hoping to build up the potential of individual women to expand their skills and advance to these positions, while at the same time working to expand management’s understanding of women workers’ potential.

Meiers: In these collaborations, what opportunities do you see? How can we expand partnerships to support a more inclusive economy?

Liang: I think the greatest opportunity from our collaborations is that we are a national business association and you are an international business association, of sorts. And this is critical, because we are working at both ends of the supply chain. A lot of your members are buyers of our members.

So in working together, we can try to mobilize both ends of the international supply chain. So many issues can be addressed in this way.

Read perspectives on the inclusive economy from The Rockefeller Foundation’s Zia Khan, Western Union’s Talya Bosch and GlaxoSmithKline’s Clare Griffin.

This story first appeared on:

Jeanologia Bows Sustainable Solutions for Denim and Activewear Finishing

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Jeanologia, a leader in developing sustainable technologies for garment finishing, is set to premier two innovations in sustainable finishing for denim and activewear at Kingpins New York (July 21-22).

Through Pure Eco, the Spanish company is unveiling new developments to create a range of denim finishes, including natural effects, 3D and vintage looks, to knit and denim using its low impact eFlow technology. The process uses just one glass of water for each garment.

The Light Ripper laser machine is a precise way to distress jeans, allowing designers to achieve a myriad of different types of damages spanning heavily worn-in looks with breaks and over repairs to more creative damage patterns. The laser can be applied to rigid and power stretch fabrics.

The Light Scraper machine is a new optical technology that allows the cloning of worn and scraped looks. The result is a garment with authentic virtual slubs on standard denim fabric.

Pure Eco is part of Jeanologia’s initiative to increase the number of American designers applying technology to achieve new effects and finishing in their collections through sustainable and efficient processes. The message is, designers can adopt environmentally-friendly solutions in their design processes without compromising on the final look.

Jeanologia Americas, Division Director Roberto Muñoz said the company wants to encourage designers to take on the “new creative revolution through technology.” He added, “Today it is possible to break down the barriers between creativity and technology, fashionistas and technocrats, designers and engineers. Creativity, sustainability, innovation and technology are the key to the new industrial era.”

Jeanologia is also introducing iKnits, a collection focused on athletic apparel. The innovation delivers performance features like moisture management to standard raw materials through eFlow technology. With a combination of laser technology, waterless Ozone G2 technology and eFlow, Jeanologia achieves different finishing on materials like cotton, neoprene and cupro, bringing new design possibilities to the performance apparel market.

Muñoz said, “We can make a beautiful and authentic product in a sustainable and environmental cost saving way. What matters is not only the product itself, but also the way it is made, how it is produced; that is part of the DNA of the product.”

**This post first appeared on Rivet here.