Since buying a house in a mid-sized Midwestern town, I’ve been doing more buying than normal. I don’t feel bad about it as we’re all going to consume at some point (even though keeping refuse is always at the forefront of my mind!).
But the big lingering question I have – while picking up things I’ve never before considered like smoke detectors – remains: is shopping online more eco-friendly than shopping local?
A lot of people – myself included – wonder as they don’t have low-waste options where they are. To purchase in bulk or to find items that will help them in their zero waste journey, they’ve either got to travel to a physical store or order online.
My gut instinct is to say shopping local is always better, but I wasn’t really sure, particularly when ‘shopping local’ in Lafayette almost always necessitates getting into a car. ‘Local’ also doesn’t always mean supporting local business as I may not be able to find what I need at my price point.
So… is shopping online more eco-friendly than shopping local?
The short(ish) answer is yes.
A Carnegie Melon study found “e-commerce delivery uses less primary energy and produces less CO2 emissions than traditional retailing… Overall, e-commerce had about 30% lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions compared to traditional retail.” Chances are, if you live in a suburban or rural area where you have to travel considerable distances to shop, online shopping makes sense.
For places like Lafayette, directly between the major warehouses of Chicago and the metropolitan sprawl of Indianapolis, online shopping almost certainly wins out.
I mean, think about it: when you purchase online, the item ships directly from a warehouse. When you purchase in a store, the item has already shipped from a warehouse plus you’re adding the additional cost of you getting to and from the store.
And here’s the truly shocking thing: while we fret constantly about the excess packaging that comes to us from Amazon, it’s really not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. An LA Times article cited the coauthor of that Carnegie Melon study as saying he was surprised by “how small an impact packaging really has, particularly with the growth of recycling channels for packaging.”
The article continues, saying “although packaging accounts for 22% of the carbon dioxide emissions of an item purchased online, customer transportation accounts for 65% of emissions when buying the equivalent item at a retail store, according to the study.”
Essentially, while you’ve been fretting over the single bit of bubble wrap in your cardboard box, what you should have been worrying about is the car you hopped into to get to the store. The unseen costs of consumer transport are far higher than a bit of extra cardboard or recyclable plastic packaging.
HOWEVER. The true answer, like most things in life, is more complex than that. While the answer is highly subjective based on your own location and needs, here are some more nuanced answers to the question.
Yes to online, if you exclusively shop online.
A 2013 study from MIT suggests that online shopping is far more eco-friendly than shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. In fact, the study concluded shoppers who completed the entire buying process online had a carbon footprint almost two times smaller than a traditional shopper.
Physical stores require a lot of energy and upkeep. This produces more carbon emissions and waste than the relatively bare-boned operation of online stores that only have warehouses.
But those eco-savings come with a huge caveat: you actually have to give up brick-and-mortar shopping alongside of online shopping. What studies found is consumers shopped online as a complement to brick-and-mortar. They did not replace physical shopping altogether. Because of that, they ended up producing more carbon emissions than either online or physical shopping would alone.
This is why the first R of zero waste (refuse!) is so important. If you do your necessary shopping online but continue to patronize physical stores and impulse buy unnecessary items (or vice versa), your environmental savings disappear almost immediately.
Yes to online, if you’re not in a hurry.
Vox did a great article recently about how eco-friendly online shopping can be, BUT two-day shipping blows all of your hard-won carbon savings out of the water.
When you ask for items to be delivered quickly, the online distributor loses the ability to consolidate deliveries. Rather than sorting items into trucks in the cheapest way, the company now has to focus on the fastest way. That means more trucks running on the roads or worse – air delivery. Airplanes emit far more carbon than other modes of transportation, so ultra-fast shipping guarantees you’re shooting more carbon directly into the sky.
If you’re shopping on Amazon, this means choosing the ‘combined shipments’ option. Items from multiple orders will be combined into the same package. Your products will arrive slower, but will produce less packaging and allows Amazon to make the most efficient delivery choices.
Yes to local, if you buy local products without extra driving.
The holy grail of shopping: buying all local products while getting to the store on foot or by bike. Or only stopping at stores that are on your fixed routes, such as on the way to school or work.
(Any extra deviation is a huge no-no. A 2009 UK study showed that if a car made a round-trip of more than 6.7km/4.1mi to go to a local farm shop it produced more carbon emissions than a home delivery van that traveled up to 360km/223.7mi to deliver an organic box of produce.)
The no car caveat is huge, and frankly almost insurmountable for someone who doesn’t live in a major town or city.
The problem with that, of course, is that it’s an absolutely unattainable dream for almost everyone. Even if you have walkable/bikeable access to a local grocery store, odds are most items aside from fresh produce have been shipped from some distance. It’s unlikely local makers can produce everything you might need, particularly if you live in a smaller town.
But if you are able to do a majority of your shopping by accessing nearby stores with a high amount of locally-sourced items, it’s a win. Additionally, you’ve got to consider the local economic impact of shopping local. Studies clearly show local businesses put way more back into the local economy than chains. Bolstering the local economy may mean more to you than more carbon emissions.
NB: I didn’t look too much into public transport as an added element to this conundrum. Frankly, too many Americans don’t even have decent public transport access to even factor it in, in my opinion.
The bottom line?
Online shopping is probably the way to go. Your location and your mode of transport is a huge factor and you’ll have to take into account your personal situation to decide what’s best. But to sum up, the case for shopping online is made much stronger if:
- you live in a rural or suburban area where you have to go out of your way (more than 4 miles round-trip) to complete all of your shopping needs.
- you don’t have local stores that offer the kinds of items you need.
- you’re able to curb impulsive spending habits and be a very careful consumer.
I hoped I made the question of is shopping online more eco-friendly than shopping local a bit more illuminated for you. It’s a complex issue but smart, conscientious shopping can help to mitigate the environmental impact of whatever shopping choices you make.