Delivery, Please! Why Online Shopping May be Better for the Environment


Haven’t gotten into online shopping yet? You may want to make the shift if you care about the environment.

Ooooh, the thrill of opening up the front door to find a mysterious brown box, carefully taped shut and stamped with the Amazon logo or the address of a far-away eBay seller. Very few delights in life compete with the simple pleasure of getting a package, even when you already know what’s inside. Fortunately for delivery-lovers such as me, ordering products online for home shipping is, in fact, among the most environmentally-friendly ways to shop. And while it’s still important to consume less to preserve the planet, it makes sense to procure those items you really need with a few clicks of the mouse instead of trekking down to the brick-and-mortar store.

The folks at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon Green Design Institute studied the environmental impact of shopping online at versus traditional in-person shopping; they found that hitting the Internet for supplies and gifts creates 35 percent less greenhouse gas and energy waste than traditional shopping. During the online shopping portion of the experiment, the majority of environmental damage occurred during packing and “last-mile” delivery. For retail stores, most of the emissions came from customers driving to the store and back.

For a product to reach a retail destination, it must first be shipped to a distributing center, then to a warehouse and finally to the store itself. In the online shopping world, there’s often no need for a warehouse—after clicking “confirm order,” a distribution center gets the message and ships your book, bath towels or knee-high boots directly to you. Combined with the fact that you don’t need to leave home to pick up your goodies, this translates to a significant environmental savings.

Of course, this study only reflects the shipping model, and some online retailers may use less eco-friendly shipping practices. Plus, there are still some situations when it’s greener to stay local. For example, if you’re after a hemp T-shirt and that boutique down the street happens to sew its own, it’s probably far greener to drive a mile and buy the locally-manufactured item than to order online—after all, that shirt has never seen a factory, distribution center or warehouse. Bike there to score even more green points.

On a positive note, more people are buying online than ever, helping to reduce the environmental impact of shopping. According to Bloomberg, experts predict a 45 percent increase in e-commerce between 2012 and 2016. And with online sales in 2012 totaling $327 billion worldwide, that promises to be an impressive leap indeed.

Not to bust the party, but there is one important point to hammer home: There’s really no such thing as “green” shopping. Every item you purchase takes resources from the earth, and is probably manufactured in an energy-guzzling factory and treated with toxic chemicals. Then it’s packaged in wrapping that uses even more resources before it’s shipped—sometimes halfway across the world—to distributors. And that’s before you even see the product. Green consumption is minimal consumption, so don’t forget about the environmental price tag that comes with every bar of soap or cute pair of skinny jeans you spot on Amazon.

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