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Green Tip: Online Shopping vs. Traditional Shopping

Green Tips | June 23, 2017

Which is Better for the Environment?

Since the rise of online shopping in 2001, the $350 billion e-commerce industry has flourished in the U.S., almost doubling in size over the past five years alone. However, the jury is still out on the sustainability of online shopping as compared to traditional shopping at a brick-and-mortar store. Although a study by Carnegie Mellon shows that e-commerce is overall better for the environment than traditional shopping, there are a variety of factors that can skew this calculation.

Where a consumer lives can greatly influence their e-commerce carbon footprint. In an urban area where public transportation and zero carbon methods like walking are available, a trip to a brick-and-mortar store may be much more efficient than online shopping. However, when consumers live in suburban areas and stores are far away, online shopping can have a lower carbon footprint than individual trips to the store because packages are processed through distribution centers and delivered to respective neighborhoods, reducing the amount of fuel burned to get products from warehouse to customer.

Similarly, depending on the delivery service, some methods may have a higher carbon impact than others. Companies like Postmates, which has a fleet of 15,000 freelance drivers signed up to deliver individual customer orders, drivers often only carry one item at a time—a highly inefficient shipping system. Furthermore, an MIT study concludes that fast-tracking your order can be worse for the environment as quick-shipping options almost triple the impact of freight transportation.

AlthOugh in some circumstances online shopping may have a smaller carbon impact than traditional shopping, the packaging from online purchases produces a great deal of waste, and even recycling it is energy and water intensive. Every month, we discard our own weight in packaging, according to Stanford University. Researchers have also found that online shopping leads to an increase of trucks on the road, which exacerbates traffic congestion and can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

So…what can you do?

Choose products from companies that make an effort to reduce their packaging. Many companies have implemented sustainable packaging programs and have seen their shipping costs reduced as a result. Even Amazon has a program with “Give Back Box” which allows you to fill your Amazon-box with donations to charity and send it to cooperating groups in your area. They also have a “Frustration Free Packaging” program which works with manufacturers to create a ready-to-ship box that is 100% recyclable and reduces excessive packaging.

You can also avoid inefficient delivery systems including ones that don’t deliver in bulk or are fast-tracked.

If you are going out to pick up items, try to order everything you need at one time so that you can be efficient in terms of both energy and time. You can do this by combining errands into one trip, scheduling group appointments, and planning ahead to minimize your time in the car.

And better still, consume less!

By: Korinna Garfield

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