Holiday Shopping: Is Online or In Person Better for the Earth?

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It’s the season of giving, but all of that consumerism can mean taking something from the environment. Those who want to minimize their carbon footprints without turning into Scrooge may be wondering what style of shopping is best for the earth: online or in person at a brick-and-mortar store? Let’s take a look at how you can shop smartly this season.

Factor 1: Packaging

Boxes are an inevitability with online shopping. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Boxes are an inevitability with online shopping. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Tearing open a package from an online purchase will show you first-hand the atrocity of packaging — foam peanuts everywhere, plastic encasing every little product and boxes upon boxes. How can this be eco-friendly?

In actuality, most of the packaging included in delivered online orders is the same packaging that products are delivered to stores with. Because packages are opened and displayed neatly on shelves, in-store customers are simply less aware of the plastic, Styrofoam and cardboard involved. Products designated for physical stores and online orders may be packaged differently — in-store products have packaging focused on minimizing tampering and theft, whereas online orders may focus on product protection in the delivery process — but they are essentially the same, according to Packaging Digest.

Winner: Draw

Factor 2: Space Upkeep

It takes a lot of resources to keep a brick-and-mortar store running. Photo: Shutterstock.com

It takes a lot of resources to keep a brick-and-mortar store running. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Store upkeep is an environmental cost that must also be taken into consideration. Many e-commerce sites completely cut out the brick-and-mortar shop and stick to a website, warehouse and delivery service. In doing this, they effectively remove the environmental costs of running a store — things like constant fluorescent lighting, a stampede of employees driving to and from work, and regulation of a comfortable store temperature. Companies like these may provide the greenest shopping option as the carbon footprint of shipping an item is significantly lower than that of customers driving to and from a store.

Winner: Online

Factor 3: Type of Store

Small, locally owned stores are more likely to be eco-friendly. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Small, locally owned stores are more likely to be eco-friendly. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Of course, not all stores are created equal. Big-box stores require a huge amount of upkeep. These stores need lots of employees, lots of products and lots of space. Because of the fast-paced nature of big-box stores, they are creating and selling products quickly and, consequently, in a less-green way. Most big-box stores boast great products at low prices, which is difficult to maintain while using eco-friendly production practices. Many of these stores even outsource their production to countries with few environmental regulations in order to get away with using environmentally harmful manufacturing methods.

In contrast, local shops tend to be a greener choice. Brick-and-mortar stores that are locally owned and sourced tend to be smaller with fewer, well-made products. Buying locally may at times be less budget-friendly, but when you consider environmental costs, shopping local triumphs. Local stores tend to follow relatively eco-friendly production processes and hire fewer, local employees. These smaller shops source their products from nearby vendors, reducing the amount of miles a truck must drive to deliver products. Local shops also tend to be more common in urban areas where alternative eco-friendly transportation is common and minimizes shopper miles, as compared to big-box stores that need large and sprawling suburban spaces to thrive.

Winner: Local shops

Factor 4: Transportation

Delivery trucks are more efficient than cars containing just one person. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Delivery trucks are more efficient than cars containing just one person. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Perhaps the most definitive difference between buying online and in person is the factor of transportation. Online shopping allows you to easily purchase items on your wish list with a click of a button, whereas shopping in-store requires some travel.

Of course, the carbon footprint of traveling to and from the store depends on the distance traveled and mode of transportation. According to the Department of Transportation, shoppers drive an average of 14 miles round-trip on a typical outing. That doesn’t include the multiple trips to the store to scope out, decide on and finally buy the product you’ve been thinking about, not to mention additional trips for returns and exchanges.

Though online shopping cuts out the travel aspect for customers, clicking “buy” sends delivery trucks on a mission to your doorstep, guzzling fuel and emitting greenhouse gases along the way. Nevertheless, studies have found that shopping online is actually twice as efficient as traveling to a store to shop in person. Those delivery trucks carrying online orders almost always make numerous stops in one trip, making it a more efficient task than driving to and from a store to buy a few products at a time.

Winner: Online

The Verdict

Photo: Shutterstock.com

Photo: Shutterstock.com

After weighing the pros and cons, online holiday shopping is the more eco-friendly option, though both brick-and-mortar and online shopping have benefits and drawbacks. If you are doing in-person shopping, support the little guy and make your purchases at locally owned stores.

Read more about online shopping in our article “Is Online Shopping Really Environmentally Friendly?”

Feature photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren has a B.S. in environmental science, a crafting addiction, and a love for all things Pacific Northwest. She writes from her cozy downtown apartment tucked in the very northwestern corner of the continental U.S. Lauren spends her time writing and focusing on a healthy, simple and sustainable lifestyle.
Lauren Murphy