What will our shopping habits look like after COVID-19?

Is the future of shopping online and what does that mean for the environment? The Wall Street Journal and Business of Fashion have been closely following customer shopping habits as people begin to venture out of the house again, but it appears that in-store purchases are still down dramatically from what they were last year. Concern about personal safety is still an issue and even though the virus has subsided in many places, the lack of vaccine makes it difficult to prevent a resurgence without social distancing. Many consumers have expressed fear about returning to stores too soon, and with the convenience of online shopping there is no real need to risk exposure unnecessarily.

Even if consumers did feel safe returning to stores, there is no guarantee the stores they’re looking for will be open. Nordstrom is permanently closing 19 stores — 3 of which were announced just this week, suggesting 19 may not be the final number. Macy’s has been slow to reopen all of their locations, and there have been rumors flying that it could be the next retail giant to fill for bankruptcy after warning of a $1 billion quarterly loss. There have been more than a few journalists predicting “the end of the shopping mall” if big traffic drivers like Nordstrom and Macy’s shut down. Roughly a year ago, one in seven retail purchases was made online, and even before the virus, online shopping was expected to increase. The switch to predominantly online shopping is inevitable, and this could be very good for the environment. Alan McKinnon, a professor of logistics at the Kühne Logistics University, points out that the transportation from store or warehouse to a customers house is the most “energy-intensive stage” and “typically generates more CO2 emissions than all the upstream logistical activities.”

If every delivery went perfectly and returns are ignored, then McKinnion says it would generate 24 times more carbon dioxide emissions to buy a single item in-store than it would to buy the item online and have it delivered. In reality deliveries are not executed in the most eco-friendly manner and almost one in five items is returned, creating a lot more emissions and making the environmental impact of online deliveries more equal to shopping in-store. However, online shopping and deliveries have the potential to be extremely sustainable. Amazon is investing in 100,000 electric vehicle (EV) vans from car maker Rivian and the company is expected to get 80% of its energy from renewable resources by 2024, which is when the order of EVs should be done. ThredUp, an online thrift store, has recently started offering Buy & Bundle shipping which bundles all your purchases made over a seven day time period in one package to reduce materials and emissions. Initiatives like these, which are taken by companies, will be the most beneficial to the environment. Not every consumer will drive to the store in an electric vehicle, and not every costumer will ask for a paper bag or no bag over a plastic bag. The biggest win for the environment as shopping moves online, will be the control that brands regain. They will not be forced to sell certain clothes at discounted prices through department stores, instead they will be able to sell directly to customers and incorporate sustainability in that process.

Will consumers gravitate more towards “do good” brands? At the beginning of the pandemic, as stores closed and sales started to decline, there was a conversation about whether or not this hiccup in the industry would be good for sustainability initiatives or if brands would abandon their work towards becoming more responsible, and prioritize selling instead. Just over two months after a global quarantine started, it is now clear that sustainability is not just a second thought, but may have actually become a more important topic for brands and consumers. Condé Nast, Business of Fashion, and Sourcing Journal are three prominent media companies that have released seminars or reports over the past week discussing the impact the fashion industry has on the environment, proving that interest in this subject is still there. Clothing brands are continuing to reduce their impact as well, despite skepticism from some consumers. Marc Jacobs which has announced it will be using 100% renewable energy by 2024, is one example. Even Nordstrom — in the midst of permanently closing stores — is implementing new plans such as halving plastic use and increasing the amount of sustainably sourced materials. Consumers are also shopping less and shopping more mindfully as their spending budgets on non-essential items have decreased due to the economic downturn. Websites like WWD and Vogue have been promoting capsule wardrobes — a few basic items of clothing that can be worn different ways to make dozens of outfits.

Meanwhile secondhand sales have boomed as Depop recently saw “record-breaking growth” since March. 64% of Gen Z and Millennial consumers are influenced by sustainability when making purchases according to a BCG analysis. Shoppers care an increasing amount about the environmental and human impact of a brand, and younger consumers in particular are turning away from companies that are not doing good for the planet (fast fashion). As a result the secondhand market is increasing and brands that produce new clothes are being pressured to make them responsibly. This will eventually lead to a natural shift in the industry regardless of what consumer habits are. Older generations may not care about sustainability as much, but brands will still be using renewable energy and natural materials because they will alienate younger shoppers if they don’t. The question “will consumers gravitate towards responsible brands now?” is almost not even relevant. Soon most brands will have “do good” initiatives in some way or another. Secondhand may see the biggest increase over the next couple of years, especially if it is the cheaper option. Luxury retailers and shopping mall staples like H&M and Old Navy will have to make changes to their business in order to give consumers a reason to shop there — meaning an increase in sustainability and creativity.