It’s Plastic Free July, so I’m planning to post a few pieces on environmental topics. This post was written by Jen Panaro and originally appeared on Honestly Modern.
Is online or in-store shopping better for the environment? As with most things, it depends, but here’s what the data tell us and how you can determine what makes the most sense for you.
I heard the doorbell ring and glanced out my window to see a delivery truck sitting in front of the house. As I headed downstairs to grab my package, I realized the delivery person I saw out the window wasn’t the one who had just rang my doorbell. I had two delivery trucks in front of the house at the same time. Even though no one else was home, I felt a little embarrassed.
I’m really not a shopaholic. I rarely buy something for the sake of getting something new. I almost always have a more intentional purpose for my purchases.
Recently, I’ve been receiving a lot of deliveries for a variety of reasons. We’re moving into a new house this week and have two guests rooms, a home office and a play room that we’ve never had before. I’ve ordered sheets, mattresses, beds, a desk, a desk chair, and more online. While I recognize we may not “need” all these additional rooms, they certainly will be used regularly and aren’t being furnished to sit and collect dust.
With a recent move to a new climate, we needed more summer clothes, all of which I purchased from a few of my favorite sustainable brands (and all ordered online). The boys grow like weeds, so I buy their clothes secondhand from one of my favorite secondhand clothing site, thredup.
I even order a lot of everyday things online like diapers from Amazon, dinner from HelloFresh and craft supplies for specific projects. Needless-to-say, the delivery trucks are familiar with our address.
With two delivery trucks sitting in front of my house at the same time that day, I couldn’t help but wonder how my primarily-online shopping habits impacted the environment.
Was I feeding a carbon emissions problem by making nearly all my purchases online and leading delivery trucks to my house on a daily (sometimes twice daily) basis?
Spoiler Alert: For me, probably not. Generally though, the jury is still out.
Here’s what the research says.
How Much Marginal Driving Really Happens?
Whether shopping online or from brick-and-mortar stores, large tractor trailers deliver the goods to our community from the manufacturer or distributor. Either the UPS and FedEx trucks drive packages to their distribution centers or Target delivers items to their local stores. These trips are likely fairly similar, so I suspect we don’t see a significant difference in the first leg of the journey.
After this checkpoint, a lot of variables enter into the equation. The remaining research isn’t conclusive, but we can get some directional support about our own habits with the conclusions derived from a host of studies.
Researching Purchases Online Helps
For those of us who research purchases and shop almost exclusively online, online shopping leaves a significantly smaller carbon footprint than traditional in-store shopping despite the delivery trucks and packaging. One paper from MIT in 2013 suggested a shopper who purchases exclusively online leaves half the carbon footprint of a traditional in-store shopper. Unlike traditional shoppers, online shoppers don’t drive from store to store to compare alternatives before deciding, and this generates most of the environmental benefit.
After deciding on a final purchase, traditional shoppers may link together a few errands to make one trip more efficient. Studies suggest, however, that we aren’t very good at this. Delivery companies like UPS and FedEx, on the other hand, put forth major investment of time and resources to determine the most efficient routes for delivery of goods (far more efficient and effective than a typical individual’s efforts to combine a few errands here and there). These combined considerations give another edge to online shoppers.