Online Shopping: How Green is It?

The Online Shopping Survey conducted by GfK in 2008 showed that about 70 % of people think shopping online is good for the environment as it helps to reduce the carbon footprint. But is it really that simple?

Too many variables come in to play: when you live, how much you buy, who delivers the purchase., etc. This post overviews 4 main factors to compare the impact of conventional versus online shopping: carbon dioxide emissions, product packaging, shopping research and product storage.

With actually quite a few “buts” coming here and there, online shopping seems a bit greener which is visualized via the following table (red indicates a greater impact):

online shopping environmental impact

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Img <a href=Img src by Adam Swank

The most recent research conducted by Logistics Research Centre at Heriot-Watt University in March 2009 compared the carbon footprints of online and conventional shopping. The research was based on two absolutes:

  1. The buyer drives to the mall (instead of using public transport);
  2. The person buys fewer than than 24 small, non-food items (instead of buying in bulk).

According to the research, an average trip to the mall produces 4,274 g of carbon dioxide, while a typical van-based delivery creates about 180 g (which makes online shopping approximately 24 times greener). Thus, when both of the above absolutes are true, online shopping turns eco-friendlier than conventional shopping in terms of carbon dioxide emissions.

You can download the whole research paper here.

The research deliberately disregards the following cases:

  • Cases when the goods are returned (which results in the package traveling back to the warehouse);
  • Failed deliveries (same problem as above).

Product Packaging

Img <a href=Img src by Betsssssy

Goods purchased online and delivered to your front door require individual packaging unlike those stored and bought at retail outlets that are delivered to stores in bulk. This results in more packaging resources and a greater waste.

According to Fritz Yambrach, a professor of packaging science at the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology:

“The product distribution system for Internet sales – similar to mail-order catalogues – normally requires more packaging material because the wholesale-retail system is circumvented…”

Product Research

Img <a href=Img src by Hey Paul

There is one more huge factor to take into account: how much easier it is to conduct a product research online than in real life. If a consumer has insufficient information on a product before buying, it can result in a few really “eco-unfriendly” activities:

  • Driving from mall to mall for price comparison;
  • Driving to another store in search for different item specifications;
  • Driving back home without purchasing anything which means “delayed” purchase (driving back to the mall later), etc

The Internet has made online research much easier. Online shopping communities like Buxr, price comparison tools like PriceGrabber, user reviews aggregators like BizRate have made shopping almost surprise-free: one can find what, where and how to buy without ever leaving home.

Product Display and Storage

Img <a href=Img src by sashafatcat

A centrally-located warehouse, from where goods (that are purchased online) are shipped to the buyers’ houses, must provide much less impact on the environment than multiple retail malls scattered all over your neighborhood (think about the amount of resources these outlets require to be cooled, heated and lit).

The Conclusion?

The debate in itself makes little sense. Both conventional and Internet shopping may be green under certain circumstances. If you shop online only because you think this way is greener, I can tell you it might be not. Here are a few tips that could make shopping greener (if you care):

  • Buy in bulk from one vendor (to save on individual packaging and delivery);
  • Use online shopping for products that you can’t get on your daily route (to your office, children’s school, etc);
  • Stick to online retailers that use recycled packaging (there are quite a few of them, you will easily find them using web search);
  • Instead of company delivery service, use general postal services like UPS, USPS, Fedex (even if the latter turns a bit longer / more expensive). General postal services deliver mail to all your neighborhood in one go which definitely saves on emissions.

So what’s your take?

The guest post is by Ann Smarty, a search geek and social media addict.

  1. NewsView

    This analysis makes many good points. To them, I would like to propose another, one that is consistently overlooked due to the prevailing notion that paperless and digital forms of commerce and communication are inherently Green: The Internet itself. The electrical load of today’s household, as evidenced by how many more circuits and outlets are built into newer residences, are much higher, principally due to the increase in the number of electric and battery-operated gadgets people today own β€” chief among them the personal computer. But it isn’t just the computer sitting in a home office that consume fossil fuels every time they are powered on. The Internet itself functions through a series of interconnected computers, routers, server farms, etc. As long as the form of generating that electricity is primarily coal, the carbon footprint of the Internet itself must be factored into the equation. It’s simply too easy to leave a computer running around the clock. One would have to make more effort to actually travel to the store. Lastly, there is the reality that in order to pay bills or shop online, consumers typically purchase a personal computer. Now in addition to a car, bicycle or some form of public transit, consumers are adding to the carbon footprint via the hardware it requires to access it. And because the components in such electronics are highly toxic and rarely environmentally friendly β€” and are so quickly rendered obsolete such that it is necessary to upgrade every few years β€” these carbon-consuming tools must be factored into the environmental cost of shopping online.

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