The holiday shopping season is here, and when it comes to shopping, there are some very mixed messages out there about which is greener: shopping online or at an actual, physical brick and mortar store.
It’s true that many people believe buying local seems to be a very eco-friendly way to go; however, shopping online doesn’t involve any car trips, and is the height of convenience too.
There is no completely definitive answer to the question of which is best (online purchasing or buying in stores) as so much is dependent on the variables. There is a certain amount of energy needed to do both, as well as considerations such as supporting your local economy.
Let’s take a look at everything you need to consider to figure out which option is the eco-friendliest for you – shopping online or at a store.
As everything about shopping online is dependent on the scale of each operation, it’s impossible to generalize in terms of exactly how eco-friendly this is across the board. Having said this, online stores each have several factors in common.
All goods bought online need to be shipped from a storage warehouse. In terms of eco-friendliness, warehouse storage can be a lot greener than selling goods from a retail outlet. In fact, cutting out the retail store aspect of selling, also gets rid of all the heating, cooling, lighting, and building costs that relate to selling from a physical store.
With figures from the Center for Energy & Climate Solutions stating that shipping 10 pounds of goods by overnight air (which is the most energy-intense delivery method) actually uses 40 percent less fuel that making a roundtrip in the car to the mall, shopping online is perhaps a more ecologically viable option than many of us realize.
The Center for Energy & Climate Solutions also states that ground shipping via truck uses just a tenth of the energy of driving yourself. If you’re wondering how this actually works out, when you’re driving yourself to the mall, it’s likely that there is only you and a passenger or two in the vehicle. Contrast this with a truck that’s carrying many tons of cargo, and not just one package, and it’s easy to see how savings can be made energy-wise via shopping online.
Having said this, when you’re considering the environmental impact of online shopping, the simplest answer is that it depends on factors such as how much you’re buying at once and how many deliveries you’re receiving.
When you’re shopping online, your experience tends to be more controlled than if you are buying in store. You probably have an idea of what you’re looking for, and if not it’s easy enough to conduct a search that will bring up a list of goods with the ability to narrow the search filters to find the items that are cheapest.
You’re also not distracted by salespeople, noise, and the general public. S,o in theory, it should be easier to make good choices, and to compare bargains via reviews.
Shopping online is also convenient when you do most of your legwork online, comparing styles and prices, you can find exactly what you want and need without having to trawl through the local stores, and without much impact on your day-to-day life.
According to a recent Forrester report, “U.S. Cross-Channel Retail Forecast, 2015 To 2020”, online sales are likely to grow by 9.32 percent annually over the coming five year period, with a huge 244 million consumers browsing or buying via the Net in 2015 alone.
Perhaps the biggest online shopping risk is the fact that many retailers offer free shipping. This is one factor that makes it more attractive to add in another few items to your cart, especially when there’s a free shipping cut off point. It’s likely that by the time you’ve reached the free shipping point, the store you’re buying from has made enough money to make a real profit, even after the fact that your shipping is free.
Shopping in Stores
The benefits of shopping locally may seem obvious. Packaging can be significantly reduced by using your own bags, not to mention that buying multiple packages online results in what can sometimes be a huge amount of extra packing materials to dispose of. With this in mind, it’s true that many packaging materials can be recycled, however it still takes infrastructure and energy to do so.
One of the key downsides of shopping in a brick and mortar store is that items in stores often tend to travel more miles to their final destination. First, a product needs to be manufactured, then sent to a central warehouse. From there, it will move to a regional distribution warehouse before its final journey to the store.
Many online shopping sites reduce their carbon footprint by cutting out the middleman, as their products travel directly from the distributor’s warehouse to your home.
A study from Carnegie Mellon showed that the online shopping distribution model from a company like Buy.com is 35 percent less environmentally unsound than traditional local retail models.
A recent study by the largest mall landlord in America, Simon Property Group, suggests that shopping in malls is possibly better overall for the environment than online shopping. The reasons stated to back up the findings are that when going to the mall, shoppers often travel in groups, buying more than one item at a time, thus reducing their environmental impact, whereas online shoppers make more returns, and the shipping requires far more packaging.
Basically, if you’re intent on purchasing one single item, and you need to travel a distance to a store to find it, you are usually better off buying it online. In fact, the report discovered that the environmental impact of shopping online is seven percent less than mall shopping when compared against like for like purchases.
Conversely, a master thesis from 2013 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Transportation & Logistics indicated that online shopping can be the most eco-friendly option in many different scenarios. For example, some consumers combine the two separate channels, researching and ordering their purchases online, but picking them up, and returning them, in store.
According to information from The Wall Street Journal, in 2015, retail sales in the U.S. rose 1.4 percent over the previous year, but e-sales went up by a relatively huge 14.6 percent.
To shop in a brick and mortar store, you probably won’t have to drive very far, unless you live in a very rural area, thus saving on the energy required to retrieve your goods. In addition, you’re supporting your local economy when you shop in independent stores, rather than in big chains.
There’s also the fact that shopping in retail stores means that making a return is easier than sending it back to an online store, and ultimately using more energy in the process.
So, What’s Best?
When you consider the two models, both are flawed, as online and on-the-street retailers are mostly entirely dependent on a hydrocarbon-fueled delivery system. Although online shopping may be marginally greener in terms of saving energy, there are certain situations that will make your specific choice better for you the consumer:
Shopping online may be better:
- If you live in a rural area or in the suburbs and have to drive a distance to go shopping.
- If you shop sensibly and bundle online orders together, rather than sending away for numerous parcels from different retailers.
- If you opt for ground shipping rather than overnight air shopping.
- If you’re concerned about the use of fossil fuels over packaging waste.
Shopping in-store may be better:
- If you can find what you need close to home.
- If you can take public transport or ride your bike to your local store.
- If you can share with others to get to the store.
When you’re taking the environmental impact of your purchasing habits into consideration, it’s good practice to think of buying less, buying online, buying used, or if you’re shopping in a brick and mortar store, being aware of the environmental impact of how you transport your goods home.
All things considered, perhaps the best choice for the environment is to make a real effort to take control of and to reduce your shopping habits. If you can find your item second-hand locally, or can even rent or borrow an item, this is often the best way to go. Also, whenever you go out to the mall, buy everything in one trip rather than making lots of short trips for your goods whenever you think of something you wish to purchase.
Perhaps the big question isn’t which is better when shopping online or purchasing in an actual brick and mortar store, but instead how each option can have a lower impact on the environment. For this reason, it’s likely that a well thought out combination of shopping online as well as buying locally will produce the most eco-friendly results.
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