Is online shopping bad for the environment?

Sandeep wrote to us this week to ask the following:

> I’d like to know if online shopping is worse for the environment compared to the usual way of purchasing the list of items together at the supermarket or street side store?

> I was discussing this with a friend who buys stuff online all the time! I would think e-buying isn’t good.

Can you help? Answers please in the comments below. Want to submit your own question? Email info@terrapass.com.

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  1. Drew - October 15, 2008

    Its debatable especially in regards to if you are buying multiple items but I know the CEO of Amazon came out not to long ago and explained that making a purchase from them is cheaper and more efficient then if you yourself were to go out and buy that same item in the store.

  2. Paul - October 15, 2008

    As long as you are buying multiple items from the same vendor and you have them shipped together, you are most likely saving emissions and potentially breaking even on packaging (as compared to driving to the stores yourself and picking it up, unpacked, from the store shelf).
    Yes, the courier has to drive to your house with the package but they were probably going to drive near your house on their route anyway, so they might as well be saving you the gas of driving to the store(s) to pick up your goodies. Now if you had biked or walked to the store(s) to buy your merchandise and then lugged it home via human power alone, you would probably save the most emissions.
    In terms of packaging, on-line shopping may be consuming more than would be involved in just picking it up off the shelf and using your own reusable shopping bag, however by buying it on-line you are removing the need for the shelf all together…removing the need for an entire building that normally exists between the warehouse and the consumer.
    Anyway, just my thoughts. I have no official figures and am open to being proven wrong.
    cheers,
    p

  3. Andy - October 15, 2008

    I had heard that it is more energy efficient to do online shopping, even home delivery of groceries. Having products delivered to your home would have a smaller carbon footprint since there is a single truck bringing goods to several people’s homes as opposed to those individual people all getting in their cars and getting their items seprately. I think similar to public transportation: When you have a communal way of transporting multiple things or people, it’s better than each thing or person travelling separately.

  4. landsnark - October 15, 2008

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. (Probably too much.) One point is the rather enormous cost of having a huge selection of merchandise, mostly the same stuff, in several different malls or stores within a few miles of each other, scattered all over the country. These retail locations are open long hours, require a very large amount of empty space to be heated, cooled, and lit, and attract a lot of people who are just wandering through, and often making impulse purchases. The selection can’t be perfectly tailored to the desires of the community, so a lot of merchandise never sells and has to be clearanced out at the end of the season (vendors don’t find enough buyers in their area at the regular price).
    Compare that to a centrally-located warehouse, where goods can be stored much more efficiently because they don’t have to be on display. There may be a lot fewer of any single item (especially clothing) manufactured, because people from all over the country (world) are selecting from the same inventory, rather than having to try to guess how many of what items people in a certain neighborhood or region will buy.
    It seems to me that the cost of shipping an order of items (much less efficiently) to my house is offset by the very high cost of maintaining large inventories, and showroom space, at the five or six malls and countless strip malls within a few miles of my house.
    Re: delivery service’s proximity to your house, Paul’s statement is true in terms of marginal costs being small, but if there were many fewer packages being shipped, the delivery services would cut back on their routes, deliver on alternate days to different neighborhoods for the low-cost shipping options, etc, so the argument isn’t quite valid as a blanket statement.

  5. Rich E. - October 15, 2008

    Back of the envelope thinking:
    If you’re buying a lot of items in either “trip” (to a store or to a website), you’re probably doing your best either way. One way, lots of similar items are shipped from a warehouse to your neighborhood store where they’re distributed in lots of separate trips (by consumers) to individual homes. The other way, lots of different items are shipped from a warehouse to your neighborhood shipping distribution center where they’re distributed in lots of separate trips (by delivery drivers) to groups of homes.
    Overall: buy less stuff (biggest impact), buy in bulk, buy using fewer trips
    Also: buy used stuff, give used stuff away instead of throwing it away, recycle as much as possible.

  6. R. Boncorddo - October 15, 2008

    I wondered about this myself. I only know that if everyone used the US postal service instead of UPS or the equivalent it would probably be helpful because the post person comes to your house daily anyway!

  7. Dick Houston - October 15, 2008

    On line shopping saves a lot of energy. It decreases the need for display space and the need for workers to put the things in the display space. It decreases the need for sales people. This in turn decreases the need for management people, cleaning people, security people, etc. Since many of these people are no longer needed you have that many people no longer commuting to work thus saving on gasoline and heating and cooling the spaces where they did work as these close from lack of business. Not all environmental savings are good for the unskilled workers.

  8. Leslie Garrett - October 15, 2008

    According to the non-profit Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, “Shipping 10 pounds of packages by overnight air — the most energy-intensive delivery mode — uses 40 percent less fuel than driving roundtrip to the mall. Ground shipping by truck uses just one-tenth of the energy of driving yourself.”
    So, if you’re buying something you need or desperately want, online shopping is a green way to go. Of course, reducing consumption is perhaps the greenest way to go… :)

  9. Vickie - October 15, 2008

    I use online shopping for things that I can’t get “on my regular daily route” and would be cost effective to pay for shipping. I also use it to buy and send gifts to my out-of-town relatives. I mostly shop Amazon and choose items they stock so my purchases are shipped together.
    Amazon will gift-wrap and send your purchase to whatever address you request. I only use the gift-wrap service when the gift will be held to be opened later – like childrens birthdays or Christmas. Otherwise I email the recipient and tell them a gift is on the way via Amazon. That way they know why they got the item and who sent it.

  10. A J Levin - October 15, 2008

    Buying clothing online can lead to greater carbon use if you frequently return items because you cannot try them on first (wrong size or cut, for example).

  11. landsnark - October 15, 2008

    AJ: I buy a large number of clothing/footwear items (shipped in a single box) from the same retailer a couple times a year, and usually return about half of them (in a single box). [This is for work clothes and other things I can’t get from Goodwill, etc.) I still have to think I’m coming out ahead over making multiple trips to the mall. And I still think I buy & own a lot fewer pieces of clothing than the average person in my demographic.
    Definitely there are more and less efficient ways to buy online, as there are for any other method.

  12. Chad - October 15, 2008

    Shipping impacts are dwarfed by manufacturing impacts. It doesn’t matter where you buy things, it matters what you buy.
    A lot of the comparisons here seem to be comparing having something shipped vs driving specifically to the mall or store to buy this one thing. But how often does the latter happen? Very rarely, in my opinion, and even then, only in the case where it that item is needed RIGHT NOW and shipping is not an option anyway. In reality, you are already going to be going to the store anyway for a variety of reasons, so the marginal impact of buying that one more thing is small.

  13. Vickie - October 15, 2008

    “Buying clothing online can lead to greater carbon use…”
    Very true! I order apparel for my co-workers and frequently am asked to return items for those very same reasons. I save them up and make one big return.
    Some online retailers, like Lands’End, have free shopper services. These folks will help “fit” you before you place the order. I am an odd size and purchased a coat this way and was amazed how well it fit. All he needed was a few measurements – waist, chest, arm,& height. He actually reviewed 3 coat options for me and explained how each one would fit me.
    I saved gas and time by not running around town trying on coats that never seem to fit right.

  14. David - October 15, 2008

    Merchandise is shipped from manufacturers to stores the same way it gets shipped to your home. In fact, your clothing delivery could be made on the truck’s route to deliver clothing to a store, too. So I think ordering online, if it keeps you off the road, results in a small reduction of pollution/GHGs.
    Here are some other things to consider:
    -walk or bike to a local store and possibly reduce or eliminate the delivery truck from having to go down your street.
    -buy/order products that are manufactured as close to home as possible (USA rather than international, in state, or in your community)
    -buy sustainable, recyclable, reusable, long lasting products when you can
    -buy less and buy what you need.

  15. Brenda - October 15, 2008

    Even though I haven’t given much thought to the overall picture, I drive a Suburban (I’m in Texas after all) and anytime I can do something by phone or internet it saves fuel and I do know that….
    #1 – I do less impulse buying from the office supply when I do it online instead of going into the store and & I save up my list so that I’m ordering several things at once and….
    #2 -there are many times when ups, usps, fedex etc. bring us orders from more than one place at the same time, so that’s obviously less fuel & emmissions. We rarely use company couriers, and then try and consolidate those items into less deliveries.
    Since we do quite a bit of online shopping for home and office, we realized that we were getting alot of cardboard as well as packing materials and have ramped up our recycling procedures to accommodate this. Recently discovered that most of those little plastic “pillows” are #2 plastic, so after popping them, in the collection bin they go!
    Our immediate area doesn’t currently have any facilities for recycling styrofoam, and we really don’t have the space to save it indefinitely, so feel guilty putting it in the trash, but we are looking for a place for this.
    I think if we all do a little it will add up to a big impact, and e-shopping is just one of those little things.

  16. Bryan - October 15, 2008

    Brenda,
    With all due respect, living in Texas is not an excuse for a driving a Suburban.
    Sincerely,
    A Fellow Texan

  17. Malia - October 16, 2008

    David, I appreciate your comments. All other responses seem to stem from the assumption that the only place to shop is at a large suburban style mall or big-box store.
    Explore your neighborhood! 1 mile on foot is not really very far, and you may find a variety of stores to meet your daily needs within that distance. You can use any number of websites (WalkScore.com, delocator.net) to explore first, or simply take a walk. Of course many people live in suburban areas where this may be a little less possible, but with dedication and perseverance, and a commitment to making a change, it could be possible. According to a local business alliance where I live, money spent in local stores, on local goods, is 6 times more likely to stay in that community.
    Much of our consumption is unneccessary. Think first, consider your options, buy used, etc, etc.

  18. Jeremy - October 16, 2008

    I think it’s important to remember that either choice could be good or bad, and on any given day, we make our choices based on a nexus of differing factors. Traffic-should i drive? weather-should I bike? Internet- Is it cheaper? Can I wait to have it shipped?
    That being said, whatever way you go, home shopping or internet, strive to make it the least impact possible. For instance, I get school textbooks used through amazon if they aren’t available at the local bookstore, there are often sellers from all over the country, so, given the difference of 5 dollars or so, i’ll go for the geographically closest seller. Ebay also has an option on “advanced Search” to only display sellers within a certain distance of your home.
    If going to the store to shop, well, make it efficient. Bring friends who also have to go, take the bus, or bike.
    However I think it’s important to remember that if you can avoid buying something completely, by either fighting the kneejerk consumerism habit, or making it yourself, this is probably your best option, that goes for “green” products as well.

  19. JW - October 16, 2008

    There are some thoughtful and interesting comments posted on this topic. Thanks to everyone who commented. As I was reading all of them the thought came to mind that the gist of the comments points to the fact that, primarily, our economy is based on consumption of goods – whether that consumption is through walk-in stores or on-line purchasing. If we were to focus our purchasing activity solely on the internet option, tens of thousands of people would lose employment. At this point with the enormous increase in on-line shopping over the last five years, the reverse may also be true. I think we are already beginning to see some effect of the downturn in consumption in the rising unemployment statistics. Thus, this raises the larger question poised within some of the comments above: How do we create an economy that is not so slanted toward consumption while at the same time reduce pollution (carbon reduction, waste stream reduction, raw resource reduction, etc.) and keep people employed? I see this as an umbrella question for what is being discussed, and a real puzzle. I’m trying to explore this question, but it is enormous and detailed and I don’t have a good grasp of it yet. Any ideas?

  20. Waldo K - October 18, 2008

    I feel there is a bigger question lurking about. Granted, we are all becoming more aware of the necessity to reduce the impact of our inhabitance on this planet, to find a way to coexist with everything else without destroying it, and to preserve what we have not yet destroyed in order to revive it in the future. What I wonder is how we plan to do any of this while we have a population that continues to double its size at an alarming rate. How can we preserve the earth we live on when, in just a short period of time, we are threatening to overrun it? It seems like we’re just taking medicine for the symptoms without actually addressing the illness itself.
    Perhaps people living “greener” is having a substantial impact on the economy and job market. More online shopping leads to less jobs, as it takes less people and energy to run the warehouses than it does overall to run a local store. People buying less in order to conserve (money, fuel, waste) will eventually put a sizeable dent in the world economy, as it is definitely based on consumerism, and can only be supported by the shift of money from one place to another, and the need for more money to make the system sustain itself. As the grand-scale concept of recycling becomes more popular, people are inclined to buy less and share more, making way for a barter-based system instead.
    All of these shifts in ideal are a positive step toward preservation and conservation of the planet. However, the problem nobody seems to want (or be able) to address is what we plan to do to increase the number of people taking these actions while reducing, or at least stabilizing, the amount of people overall.
    Any thoughts?

  21. Kelley in NM - October 18, 2008

    R. Boncorddo (Post #6): Not all communities have door-to-door postal service. Mine is on the postal box system, where one must drive or walk to the post office to get one’s mail. For us, UPS comes here daily from the next town (50 miles one-way) to deliver stuff the post office won’t. We have only one basic grocery store and two convenience stores here, and WalMart is a hundred mile round trip drive. For me, buying online has definite advantages, including buying from WalMart this way (among other retailers I use.) Saves gas, time, my temper (no crowds) and keeps my carbon footprint rather small when compared with those who make that drive to go shopping several times a week.

  22. Kasey - October 18, 2008

    I know the readers here are more interested in the answer to the question from a science perspective, but I thought mention that I do most of my online shopping at shop.climatecooler.com, because they calculate the greenhouse gas emissions from my order and then the participating stores pay them a fee that they in turn invest in projects that eliminate greenhouse gas. It seems to be similar to buying Terrapasses to clear my conscience of my occasional air travel. Of course, buying used goods, buying local and buying in bulk are all good ideas too.

  23. CJ Bomar - October 22, 2008

    We are in the final stage of completing our kitchen remodel ( as green as possible} and I was able to purchase all of our sinks, even our range {energy star} online they came from a distribution company in a state close to ours and the shipment was consolidated. Shopping online for our purchases, rather than shopping from store to store was the best way for us to do the comparisons, save money, find the “green” products we wanted and all is well with each item. I think if we did away with all of the malls allowed the areas to go back to nature and only had neighborhood stores our lives would be simpler.

  24. Crystal Dreisbach - November 7, 2008

    I’ve been ordering organic coffee using Amazon’s Subscribe & Save feature, which is super convenient and saves us $.30 per oz of coffee, even over Costco’s bulk organic coffee.
    But what I wondered about was the environmental impact.
    I’m relieved to hear from other people’s comments that buying online is potentially greener than shopping the usual way.

  25. Ben Reaves - May 21, 2009

    Many items on store shelves are never sold. Buying online reduces this tremendous waste. Not to zero, though.

  26. shohre - May 30, 2009

    as i am writing my thises in e-shopping and its effects on reduction of air pullution and over the past 5 years i have studied over 100 articles abut the subject ,i am perfectly sure that substituting privet car trips for shopping in physical store with shopping from e-stores and delivering the product to your doors or offices through the 3rd party or the wearhouse delivery system is greener and reduces co2 and other grenhouse gasses ,as the new system of delivery is smart and more efficient than individual trips.

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