Are online retailers damaging the environment?

By Dr Manimekalai Jambulingam 

The pandemic lockdown has accelerated the openness to digital marketing and online purchasing. People’s buying behavior has shifted to online from store shopping. 

In E-commerce delivery, product undamaged to the customers is the top priority. As such, online retailers give higher priority to packaging materials, like oversized boxes and packaging materials such as air pillows, cardboard boxes, and polystyrene for the safe delivery of the products. 

Though the retailers justify that oversize packages are for the safety of products, most of the time it is a mismatch in the product size and packaging box. 

The packaging materials differ from traditional retailers as it needs to come out with a balance between product safety and ecological sustainability. After the delivery, the consumers dispose of the packaging materials as waste. 

Statista estimated that the global e-commerce industry used 2.1 billion pounds of package material waste in 2019, it will continue to grow by 4.5 billion pounds in 2025. 

In Malaysia, Recycling Alliance reported in 2021, that packing waste is the major portion of the country’s waste. 

As a result, e-commerce wastage is a big problem in the world right now. World Wide Fund (WWF) reported (2022) that Malaysians’ consumption of plastic packaging is 16.78 Kg per person the amount of waste growing rate is frightening. 

Hence, Malaysia is not exceptional in this matter as WWF’s Sustainable Retailers Scorecard found that multinational companies are giving more priority to environmental issues than local companies. 

What Can Local Companies Do Differently

Local companies are lagging behind in terms of waste management and environmental policies. Online retailers should relook into their obligation, avoid environmental destruction, and ensure the continuation of humankind. 

They must take steps to phase out harmful packing materials and use eco-friendly packaging materials in next few years to save the environment. 

This should be a key consideration for online retailers to change the habit of sending big boxes for small items and think about various ways to reduce wastage. Additionally, according to invesp, 92 percent of online customers stated that they would buy the products from the same retailers if they offered an easy return policy, package, and process. 

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission also reinforces this in a 2018 report that the major attraction of online purchasing is the return purchase policy. 

Hence, the customers are deeply embedded in the culture of right to return policy and online retailers should consider this as an important factor in planning their packages. 

In Malaysia, the e-commerce retail industry is on the path of adopting sustainable e-commerce retailing to create awareness among customers. It is not only blaming the retailers, but customers are also having equal responsibilities to preserve the environment for the continuity of humankind. 

The changes may not happen overnight, retailers should give higher priority to implementing sustainability strategies to reduce wastage to seek an eco-friendly environment.

About the writer

Dr. Manimekalai Jambulingam is a senior lecturer for the School of Management and Marketing at Taylor’s Business School. Taylor’s Business School is the leading private business school in Malaysia and Southeast Asia for Business and Management Studies based on the 2022 QS World University Rankings by Subject.

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