Environmental Impact of Online Shopping

I’ve been kind of hardcore about buying things online for a few years now, mostly out of laziness. However, I think there may be some environmental benefits to my laziness as well.

As I see it, if I drive to target, buy 20 pounds of stuff, and drive home, I actually burned fuel to move a car many miles, both ways, to get that 20 pounds of stuff to my home. The weight of my car, myself, and the stuff in my car dwarfs the weight of what I’ve purchased..

If I buy the same stuff online, it comes to my door in a truck that’s specialized for efficient delivery of packages. It likely left a delivery facility that morning full, so the energy burned by that truck throughout the day can be devided among all of the packages that delivery truck delivered throughout the day.

This isn’t new thinking, but it is fairly difficult to quantify. One attempt by MindClick GSM outlined on TriplePundit came up with the following perspective on how the numbers play out during holiday shopping:

The researchers took these numbers and ran with them, calculating that the negative environmental impact of an in-store purchase made on Black Friday is 50 times that of an online purchase made on Cyber Monday. And in more general terms, it found that carbon emissions related to purchasing an item inside a store represents an increase of more than 15 times that of an online purchase.

There are a ton of variables at play here, including:

How much stuff did you buy in a physical shopping trip?
How far did you drive to do it?
Did you make additional stops to make your trip more efficient?
How efficient is your vehicle?

I’m not looking at how far items were shipped to you since I’m assuming that most of the crap one buys travels roughly the same distance, outside of the last few miles, whether you buy it locally or online.

Cool-Companies runs the numbers as well, looking at what’s involved in getting a book to your house. Interestingly, the point out that it takes a boatload more energy to climate control a retail store than it does to store books in a warehouse.

We calculated the ratio of building energy per book sold in traditional bookstores versus on-line retailer Amazon.com to be 16-to-1.

Then, they break down the transportation costs, pointing out that it may, at least in some cases, be less carbon intensive to toss a book on a plane, then truck, versus driving across town (and back) to transport a pound of goods to your home.

And contrary to what most people think, Internet shopping uses less energy to get a package to your house: Shipping 10 pounds of packages by overnight air – the most energy-intensive delivery -uses 40 percent less fuel than driving roundtrip to the mall. Shipping by truck saves 90 percent.

For more on this, check out the carbon impact scenarios Cool-Companies offers for planes, trains, and automobiles.

Personally, while I try to make a positive environmental impact when I can, my bigger motivators, in this case, are convenience and cost. I can buy stuff faster, and often cheaper, online than I can buy heading to a physical store. Commodity products such as, well, pretty much everything at Target, can be found online for cheaper (including, maybe, at Target.com if they ever get their act together).

If buying stuff while sitting on my couch is better for the environment, great. That’s one more excuse to avoid acres and acres of blacktop parking lots.

7 thoughts on “Environmental Impact of Online Shopping”

  1. Coincidental timing of this article being posted on Slashdot tonight, which states that “25 items need to be purchased at a time” to make a positive impact on the environment. http://science.slashdot.org/story/10/09/20/236213/Online-Shopping-May-Actually-Increase-Pollution. Although this study took place in the UK.

    Also, when I have made large orders on Amazon, things have not been shipped in one large shipment. Is this the case for your orders?

    I’d also be more curious about the impact on the local economy from local Mom/Pop shopping, versus shopping at the local national chain (Target, Best Buy), versus shopping at a non-local nation chain. Seems like the 80/20% must be nearly flip flopped when ordering online, which would still favor brick and mortar shopping.

  2. There are also indirect, aggregate effects. Like: All those people shopping on Black Friday mean the parking lot has to be built to handle Black Friday crowds, which means the stores are built farther apart, which means everybody drives farther to get there every other day of the year. OTOH, I suppose, if everyone were ordering online, the streets would need to be built to handle more delivery trucks.

  3. what an interesting post! to be honest, since i don’t own a car, i do a fair amount of my shopping online, and i’ve always considered it to be a “guilty pleasure.” and, maybe, all things considered, it still is — but maybe i’m at least breaking even.

    one other category of shopping is home delivery of bulk items from local stores– for instance, i have my pet food delivered by a local independent shop, which may be is the best of both worlds.

    having these options available has definitely made it easier for me to live a car-less lifestyle over the long term. it isn’t just the cost of the gas for the single trip, it’s the fact that having this option to fill in a few key gaps means that it’s not even tempting to own a car at all.

  4. Funny you posted this because I was just talking about this concept (and whether I might want to try it out myself) and the big question was about the environmental impact. Not that that particular aspect of it would change my shopping habits. The perceived convenience of ordering online vs visiting a store is the bigger barrier.

  5. An even better alternative would be to walk or bike to a local retail shop to purchase your necessities, thus keeping dollars in the local economy without creating any environmental costs through your own transportation. Of course this requires living in an area that actually has local retail…

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