Is Online Shopping Really Environmentally-Friendly?

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Confession: I wasn’t always a fan of online shopping. I felt very strongly that I needed to be there. I needed to touch the fabric, feel the weight of my purchase, be able to hold it in my hands and see it right in front of me. I needed to experience it and suss out the quality, compare it to other options side by side with my own eyes.

Aaaand then I had my daughter. A lot changed very, very quickly. I gained 26 pounds and then lost 30. My former flat-chested self suddenly became almost obscenely busty. Nights when I used to sleep for ten hours straight were a sweet, sweet memory, and alongside these physical changes, I watched in surprise as my opinions slowly began to change, too.

Things like bank drive thru’s suddenly seemed like a godsend when I found myself with both a napping baby and a handful of checks to deposit. The mechanical swing I’d mocked before now became my most prized possession. And online shopping, something that once seemed like a second-best solution, resorted to only when I couldn’t get to the store in person, became a lifeline as the thought of dragging a cranky child through a mall became something I both feared and dreaded in equal measure.

Online shopping (r)evolution

man online shopping outside

Is online shopping really preferrable? Image Credit: Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock

My shopping habits have changed a lot since then, leaning heavily toward an emphasis on shopping locally and shopping secondhand. Online shopping gradually disappeared from my life once again, yet as virtual consumers continue to grow in number I found myself wondering – is it a viable environmentally friendly option? If you have to buy new, is choosing to shop online any greener than heading to a real live store?

When you crunch the numbers and compare these two shopping styles, there are a handful of factors to consider, including transportation, packaging, and shopping behavior. Let’s dive in.

Getting from point A to point B

An article at TreeHugger takes up a decidedly pro-online shopping stance by succinctly summing up the issues surrounding product transportation. Basically, whether you order online or buy in a store, the thing you’re buying started its journey in a warehouse somehow. The only difference when you choose between the two shopping styles is where it ends up after being shipped out from that warehouse. When you shop online, it comes straight to you; when you buy from a store it gets shipped to the store location where you see it, convince yourself that you need it, and eventually transport it home yourself.

I’ve often wondered about the impact of shipping – it seems like consolidating shipping to a central location like a storefront would be far more efficient rather than shipping to each individual homes, but the numbers may not support that conclusion. TreeHugger provides data from the Centre for Climate & Energy Solutions and suggests that online shopping may have a leg up on heading to the store.

“Shipping two 20 pound packages by overnight air — the most energy-intensive delivery mode — still uses 40 percent less fuel than driving 20 miles round-trip to the mall or store or wherever you’re going; ground shipping — which is much more efficient than overnight air — checks in at just one-tenth the energy used driving yourself.”

The reason for this is fairly simple when you think about it. Although heading to different final destinations, online shopping packages are still consolidated, all traveling on the same plane or truck before branching off into individual drop-offs. Thus, the shipping costs – both financial and environmental – are spread out between dozens or even hundreds of packages. When you drive to and from the store, nine times out of ten it’s just you in your car.

Of course, transportation isn’t the only factor when considering how environmentally friendly it is to shop online – it gets a little more complicated when you consider the packaging.

Good things come in small packages

Imagine that you need socks. Buying secondhand is out of the question (ew) so you drive to the big box store in the strip mall ten minutes from your house, grab some sweet socks, pay, and head out. Because they’re just socks, you refuse a bag (yay!) and walk out with your purchase in hand.

Contrast that scenario with one where you order the socks online (because you have Amazon prime, and why not?). When your purchase arrives, it’s packaged like this:

Yeeeah. I’m no genius but that can’t be good for the environment. Examples like this are plentiful, yet surprisingly, despite these egregious examples of package-happy Amazon employees, the packaging of a product still only counts for a small fraction of its environmental impact when you compare it to the environmental cost of driving to the store to get it yourself.

An LA Times articles exploring this issue shares a study by Pittburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University which explains:

“[study] coauthor Chris Hendrickson said he was most surprised by ‘how small an impact packaging really has, particularly with the growth of recycling channels for packaging.’ Although packaging accounts for 22% of the carbon dioxide emissions of an item purchased online, customer transportation accounts for 65% of emissions when buying the equivalent item at a retail store, according to the study, conducted by Carnegie Mellon’s Green Design Institute.”

Bottom line? If done right – planning ahead to bundle shipments, opting for slower (and more environmentally friendly) ground shipping, avoiding impulse buys, and religiously recycling all packaging material properly, using your mouse to do your shopping may indeed be the greener choice.

The greenest choice?

As a final caveat, I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that the greenest choice isn’t either one of these options – the most environmentally friendly choice is to make a concerted effort to reduce your shopping habit altogether, and shop secondhand wherever possible. This bears mentioning because although it’s the greener of the two options, the ease and convenience of online shopping makes it so, so easy to shop at any hour day or night, with virtually no effort – don’t let the seductive glow of e-commerce reel you in! Question your purchases, explore whether you can rent or borrow the item, and take a few minutes to hit up Craigslist before heading to eBay or Amazon. Mother nature will thank you!

Featured image credit: Ruslan Grumble / Shutterstock

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Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.