Greenest Shopping Method: Shopping Online vs Local

Carbon emissions from shopping have always been a topic filled with speculations and estimates to measure the environmental impacts of our needs and wants. Some argue that buying local is an effective way to reduce greenhouse gases, and others point to online retailers for reducing day-to-day trips to brick-and-mortar stores. 

Amazon truck making a delivery

In the end, to address the issue of consumer shopping CO2 emissions, we have to look deeper into how we get our products and the path they take to reach our doorsteps. By breaking down the components of online and in-person retailers, we can develop a more personalized answer for our shopping habits.

Overall, the method with the least amount of transportation, waste and energy consumption is the ideal solution for that purchase and can potentially differ for each product. For example, If someone drives weekly to a local hardware store for supplies. It might be more environmentally friendly to ask for delivery since companies schedule multiple deliveries with the same trip to reduce costs. Each order will have a smaller carbon footprint.

On the other hand, if you use your bike to a local store for grocery shopping, getting them delivered to you by a truck results in more greenhouse gas emissions. 

Grocery Shopping with a bike

Online Order And Their Impact on Your Carbon Footprint 

Generally speaking, buying online should be an ideal solution to reduce shopping emissions. With multiple deliveries on the same route that most online delivery methods use, we can avoid many carbon dioxide emissions of the standard supply chain, such as transportation of goods from the manufacturer to a local store and the customer’s trip from home to the store. 

Abstract image implying to online ordering

However, the reality is far different based on a Yale and Tongji Universities study. Due to increasing popularity and demand for faster shipping methods, orders emit much more emissions than they should.

The logistic and transportation of express deliveries in china in 2018 was estimated to be more than 14 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent GHG emissions. Almost 99% are caused by intercity deliveries.

a chart comparing cost, delivery time and GHG emissions of express shipping

We can see similar results in other developed countries, such as the United States, Canada and UK, as shopping habits and delivery methods are similar in execution. 

An average online parcel takes a five-phase path to reach the customer the fastest way possible. In Phase one, the parcel is transported to the nearest distribution center. In Phase two, it is moved to the regional center, in Phase three where orders are transported from the regional center closest to the manufacturer to the regional center of destination. 

In Phases four and five, orders are moved to the distribution center and then delivered to their destination.

Online order boxes in the back of a truck

With many online retailers’ adaptation to express delivery, GHG emissions are not the only industry pollution. Another waste product of faster shipping is more boxes, plastic wraps and envelopes. With multiple orders of one person being shipped from different facilities with different packaging, express shipping has increased the amount of cardboard and plastic waste worldwide.

Waste from cardboard boxes

How to Shop Online and be Environmentally Friendly?

You can reduce your carbon footprint by choosing non-express delivery methods. Packages shipped by slower methods often are accompanied by many more orders, and the path taken is often more energy efficient to transport more orders with the same method. 

Another solution is to support shipping companies that use environmentally shipping methods, such as using electric vehicles to reduce the transportation sector’s GHG emissions.

Furthermore, pay more attention while shopping online; with Free and Easy Returns, we pay less attention while shopping and make returns frequently, which increases the carbon dioxide trail of online orders.

What About Buying In-Store?

Someone shopping in a walmart store

Going to an actual store and purchasing the products yourself is not necessarily more environmentally friendly. 

Depending on the country and shopper’s habits, going to physical stores can increase a personal vehicle’s carbon footprint and offset the reduced emissions. For example, people in North America are more likely to use their cars to drive to the stores for longer distances. On the contrary, people are more likely to use bikes and public transport to a local store.

carrying groceries with a bike

Greenest Ways to Shop In-Person

Knowing that shopping in person is a greener way than online orders, we just need to reduce the environmental impact of transportation. 

We can use electric vehicles and public transport more often and reduce shopping frequency by planning multiple stops on the same trip. 

In Conclusion 

If you want to reduce your footprint: buy locally but walk or take public transport to the store. And if you really want to buy that magnificent dress you have seen online or a new camping backpack: please choose carefully, and do not return them, it is double the price for nature. 

References 

Impact of Express Delivery 

GHG emissions of Online vs Traditional Shopping

Comparing GHG emission

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