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Royal Geographical Society (with IBG): the heart of geography
Where does my stuff come from?
Why can people buy more stuff than they used to?
Where do we go to buy our stuff?
Virtual stuff
The kids who make our stuff
Global impacts and possible actions
Stuff: Using Google Earth

The geography of my stuff - Virtual stuff

The geography of my stuff

This lesson discusses the increase of online shopping.

Key questions

  • How and why has online consumption become so popular?
  • What implications does online shopping have on society and the environment?

Key concepts

  • Human Processes
  • Interdependence
  • Environmental interaction
  • Place

How and why has online consumption become so popular?

Britain is Europe's number one online shopping nation. By August 2008, Britain was spending a total of £4.6 billion online per year, which amounts to an average of £79 per person. Even though the economy slowed in 2008, online sales rose by 11.3%. The online retailer Amazon made a profit of $158 million in the three months to June 2008. Online shopping is successful because it is quick and easy, 57% of UK homes now have the Internet, you can shop at any time of day or night - and even if it's bad weather - and all the big high street stores now have websites so you can still buy from your favourite shop. At times during December 2007, Amazon received 11 orders per second. Analysts have suggested that the recent rise in petrol prices is another reason that people are more likely to shop from home.

What implications does online shopping have on society and the environment?

Of course, the rise in online shopping has implications for shops back in the ‘real world'. Many high street shops are suffering from declining sales, and this is especially the case for music and DVD stores as more and more people are downloading music and films from the Internet onto their computers and iPods.

You can buy music legally on the Internet from sources such as iTunes. However, some people also share CDs by copying them and some music files are posted on the Internet where others can gain access to them. If music is downloaded illegally from unofficial sources like these, this is called piracy. The Internet is having a major effect on the music industry and how it is run. If people do not pay for music, then record companies have less money to invest in future bands. The Internet means that CD sales have fallen, and as a result, so have profits for the performers, the songwriters and the record companies.

When it comes to the environment, online shopping has both positive and negative implications:

  • Cheaper purchasing online means even more products are being manufactured and sold - all of which requires energy and is responsible for more carbon dioxide being emitted
  • Some online purchases are delivered in vans and lorries meaning that there are more large vehicles on our roads
  • More and more people are using computers to download and listen to music and films. This leads to computers being left on all day (and all night sometimes) which uses a lot of energy
  • Firms like Google have offices containing tens of thousands of computers to help people to search for products online. This uses up enormous amounts of energy


  • More people are downloading music, books and newspapers onto their i-Pods and computers. Fewer CDs, books and newspapers are made which saves paper - and trees
  • Some shops are shutting down, for example DVD hire shops, electrical and book shops, as people are buying online. This means less people travel into town centres, causing less pollution and congestion
  • Many online purchases are delivered in the normal way by Royal Mail, so there is no increase in transport and pollution
  • With the rise in the number of people shopping online, the potential for net crime increases. Eighty six per cent of targeted attacks on computers are aimed at home users. Attacks include hacking, viruses, spam and phishing. Many people still do not take basic steps to protect themselves from net crime, with 17% with no virus software and 22% with no firewall. The Get Safe Online website provides people with information about how they can protect themselves online. Read this article from the BBC website




Non-commercial sharing - virtual communities

With the rest of the class, discuss your experiences of ‘life online'. How many people are members of Facebook, MySpace or Bebo? What are your experiences of these communities? Has anybody chosen not to join? Why?



What is the history of on-line purchasing?

The online shopping PowerPoint presentation gives you some facts about how online purchasing has increased in recent years.

What factors explain this growth?

Online issues: Mail-order shopping

As a class, brainstorm the following three questions:

  • What are the impacts of mail-order shopping on the shops on our high streets?
  • What are the impacts on the environment of the increase in online shopping?
  • Do you think CDs, books and DVDs have a future?

Online issues: Downloading - legal or illegal?

Download the donwload debate article which focuses on music downloading and the ongoing debate about whether we should pay to download music. Discuss the points raised by the article in a small group.



What kinds of crime exist online?

Without shops, there can be no shoplifting. But using the Internet brings all kinds of new risks.

Discuss as a class the different risks that exist online.

What can you do to protect yourself?

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