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What is more environment friendly and has lower carbon footprint - to shop online or in-store?
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This study compared the carbon footprint of the shopping process and found that a shopper doing the search & purchase of a product online tends to have almost half the carbon footprint of one who does the purchase in-store. Another study found that if the number of items is less than 24 items during an in-store shopping trip by car (or less than 7 items for bus users), then home delivery emits less CO2 per item.

The results can change if any of the following is true:

  • Speed delivery is used. That is because the supplier no longer has the flexibility to bundle multiple orders into a single delivery, sends out vans less full and travelling further per delivery.
  • The online shopper has a short distance to travel to store.
  • The online shopper is able to walk, cycle or use public transport to store.
  • The online shopper is able to club an in-store purchase during a car trip on route to elsewhere.
  • There are failed deliveries. 12-60% of home deliveries have been reported to fail first time. Either a second or even third delivery is required, or customers end up driving to to pick up the product.

Even if the purchase is from an overseas factory, the main component of the in-store purchase's carbon footprint is the customer transportation, while that of the online purchase's carbon footprint is packaging. The carbon footprint of maintaining an online store's website generates significantly less emissions than that of a physical retail store.

Other factors making online shopping less environment friendly could be:

  • Products shipped by air freight, even partially.
  • Returning items. Typically, one-fifth of products are returned.
  • Out-sourced deliveries to independent couriers who use their personal vehicles to deliver parcels, with no optimisation of delivery route and no control over vehicle emissions.
  • Individually packed items or additional packaging to prevent damage in transit.
  • Engine idling as the driver drops the package.
  • Gains in efficiency made during online shopping used to merely stimulate new consumption. The total number of vehicle miles travelled hasn’t decreased at all with the growth of online shopping.

Factors making online shopping more environment friendly could be:

  • Electric vehicles for delivery. Their carbon footprint depends on how their electricity is generated.
  • Drones for delivery are likely to provide a CO2 benefit when there are fewer recipients and/or located close to the depot.
  • Improved crowd logistics, the idea being that parcels and passengers are co-transported along a passenger trip, although the current findings indicate higher environmental impact, when compared to traditional parcel delivery.
  • Introduction of reusable packaging. A company called LimeLoop has introduced lightweight, waterproof pouches – made from durable vinyl recycled from billboards – that can be reused as many as 2,000 times. Your order will arrive in a reusable pouch which you empty, flip the label around and put back in the mailbox, so the company can use it again for the next customer. The cardboard used for packaging in the US alone each year equates to more than 1 billion trees, which could be reduced with reusable packaging. 

Tips for online and in-store shopping:

  • The purchase that doesn’t happen has the lowest delivery carbon footprint of all.
  • Ask yourself whether you might be able to get the product from a local shop – one you can reach on foot or bicycle or public transport.
  • Combine in store shopping or collection point pick-ups with other activities like your daily commute.
  • Use standard delivery rather than express delivery.
  • Buy from as few different online traders as possible, and consolidate your orders. Do not spread your purchases across several suppliers just to make small price savings. Similarly, buy multiple items during one in-store shopping trip. This improves the absolute environmental impact, by optimising fuel consumption and the amount of material for packaging.
  • Buy goods such as shoes, which have high return rates, in shops only.
  • Avoid missed deliveries by agreeing times in advance or specifying a neighbour who can accept the parcel for you.
  • Set up buying groups to place collective orders.
  • Give preference to delivery services that use returnable crates or recyclable cardboard.
  • If an online delivery uses reusable packaging, actually send the packaging back if the infrastructure allows it. In Europe, a company called Repack supplies reusable bags to online retailers. The packaging, designed to flatten easily, can be dropped back in the mail.

 

Bibliography

DeWeerdt S, “How Green Is Online Shopping?” (The Guardian, February 2016)

Edwards JB, McKinnon AC and Cullinane SL, “Comparative Analysis of the Carbon Footprints of Conventional and Online Retailing” (2010) 40 International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management 103

Farmbrough H, “Why Internet Shopping Isn’t Always Better For the Environment” (Forbes, October 2019)

Goodchild A and Toy J, “Delivery by Drone: An Evaluation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Technology in Reducing CO2 Emissions in the Delivery Service Industry” (2018) 61 Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment 58

Is Online Shopping Bad for the Environment?” (Alumniportal Deutschland, March 2017)

Matthews HS and Hendrickson CT, “Energy Implications of Online Book Retailing in the United States and Japan” (2002) 22 Environmental Impact Assessment Review 493

Murdock A, “The Environmental Cost of Free 2-Day Shipping” (Vox, November 2017)

Pearce F, “In Store or Online — What’s the Most Environmentally Friendly Way to Shop?” (GreenBiz, June 2019)

Peters A, “Can Online Retail Solve Its Packaging Problem?” (Fast Company, April 2018)

Rai HB, Verlinde S and Macharis C, “Shipping Outside the Box. Environmental Impact and Stakeholder Analysis of a Crowd Logistics Platform in Belgium” (ResearchGate, August 2018)

Saner E, “Delivery Disaster: The Hidden Environmental Cost of Your Online Shopping” (The Guardian, February 2020)

Weideli D, “Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics

Yalabik B and Milligan S, “How to Make Your Online Shopping More Environmentally Friendly” (The Conversation, October 2019)

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