Online Shopping vs. In-Person Shopping: What's Better for the Environment?
Since the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, online shopping has become one of America’s favorite “bad habits.” It’s just so easy, and everything looks great online! Those photographers and e-commerce merchandisers definitely know what they’re doing. Most of all, it’s convenient when you’re in a pinch. Cousin’s birthday party coming up? Hallelujah, online shopping. Invited to a last-minute costume party? Thank you Jeff Bezos, for normalizing two-day shipping. (Disclaimer: we are not on board with two-day shipping. More on that later.) Remember when we had to drive into town to do our pharmacy hauls, or plan a trip to the mall weeks in advance to go back-to-school shopping? With e-commerce sales claiming an increasingly large portion of total U.S. retail sales, it’s important to understand the impacts of this new way of doing business. Just ten years ago, e-commerce sales represented just 4.6% of total U.S. retail sales. Since then, they have steadily risen by about 0.9% each year (except for in 2020, when online sales jumped 4.3% in the second quarter of the year due to COVID-19). In this post, we’re going to dig into a comparison of in-store and online shopping focused specifically on carbon impacts.
BEFORE WE DIVE IN...
The following data is based on Dimitri Weideli’s 2013 MIT thesis in which they used the Monte Carlo simulation (a model used to predict the probability of different outcomes when the intervention of random variables is present) to determine each type of shopper’s carbon footprint when buying a toy in an urban area. Let’s get into it.
In-person shopping has three main carbon-intensive steps. The most significant is customer transportation, aka how you’re getting to the store. So maybe you live in New York City and you’re walking or taking public transportation. But if you’re driving , what kind of car are you driving? How far away is the store? All of these elements factor into customer transportation.
Next is the impact of the brick and mortar store. Stores need to be built, lit, and temperature controlled, and all of that has a carbon footprint. The more stores a shopper visits, the higher the impact of this element.
Finally we’ve got packaging, which includes the pallet and protective wrap that a bulk shipment of items to a store might require. Packaging for in-store purchases has a significantly lower carbon footprint than packaging for online purchases. Read on to learn why.
When someone shops online, their average biggest area of impact is packaging. The discrepancy between packaging for in-store and online purchases lies in the amount of materials required to pack individual items for delivery to your doorstep, as opposed to packing bulk orders for delivery to stores. Remember algebra? Yeah, neither do we. Here’s the DL: the surface area of one large cube made up of four smaller cubes is less than the surface areas of those four smaller cubes added together. When it comes to packaging, more surface area = more packaging. Basically, individually wrapped items require much more packaging than items packaged in bulk.
Freight transportation is the movement of an item from the manufacturer to the warehouse to the customer. When online shoppers choose overnight shipping or the Jeff Bezos special (two-day shipping), their package is almost certainly flown by airplane from the warehouse to the city near its final destination. Air shipping requires more fuel, and therefore has a higher carbon footprint, than ground shipping (which is why we’re not there for two-day shipping).
Parcel delivery is like the “last mile” of shipping, or the impacts of delivering a parcel to a shopper’s door (including vehicle and mileage). Though both parcel delivery and customer transportation move the item to the customer’s home, parcel delivery has a much smaller impact because of optimized delivery processes.
Finally, we’ve got computer use, which is the electricity consumed by a shopper using a personal computer to shop online, and data center use, which is the approximate carbon footprint of the use of the Internet during this process. Curious to learn more about the “bark and byte” of digital waste? Click here.
WHAT TYPES OF SHOPPERS ARE THERE?
Now that we’ve covered all of the most carbon-intensive elements of online and in-person shopping, let’s look at how people shop. Below is a grid containing the different possible behaviors based on the various ways in which people search for, purchase, and return products. These behaviors make up ten kinds of shoppers.
SO HOW DOES ALL OF THIS COME TOGETHER?
Now that we understand the relative areas of impact of online and in-person shopping and the possible ways to shop, we are able to understand the carbon impacts of our shopping habits.
WHO IS MOST IMPACTFUL?
According to Weideli’s assessment, the Impatient Modern Shopper has the highest carbon footprint of all. If you look back at the areas of impact, this makes sense. The Impatient Modern Shopper is responsible for the impacts of both online and in-person shopping. They are responsible for customer transportation and the store (driving to and spending time in the store), computer use and data center use (online browsing), online packaging (higher footprint than in-person packaging), freight transportation (with air shipping), and parcel delivery.
Believe it or not, the Traditional Shopper has the second-highest carbon footprint, almost entirely due to customer transportation, because they’re making multiple trips to stores. However, that also means that if a shopper is able to walk or take public transportation to the store instead of driving, this is the least carbon intensive way to shop. Some argue that “trip chaining” - combining a shopping trip with other errands or activities - lowers emissions as our transportation is being allocated for different purposes.
Meanwhile, the Cybernaut has the lowest carbon footprint of all of the shoppers. That’s right -- on average, browsing for, buying, and returning an item online is the least carbon intensive way to shop. For the Cybernaut, the most significant impact is from packaging, followed by parcel delivery, freight transportation (yay, ground shipping), and then computer use and data center use.
On average, online shopping has a lower carbon footprint than in-person shopping. However, it’s very hard to generalize due to the different impacts that behaviors and circumstances have on online and in-person shopping. The average Cybernaut (a shopper who browses, purchases, and returns online with ground shipping) has the lowest carbon footprint of all, almost two times smaller than that of the average Traditional Shopper (the one who takes multiple trips to stores to browse, purchase, and return in-store). But if the Traditional Shopper walks to the store instead of driving, their footprint is actually lower than that of the Cybernaut.
As e-commerce sales continue to claim an increasingly large portion of total U.S. retail sales, it is comforting to know that this way of doing business can be better. Online retailers also have an immense amount of control over their supply chain and operations, which gives them the opportunity to streamline and optimize the elements of online shopping. For example, Amazon is investing in new electric delivery vehicles, which (according to Amazon) will be “saving millions of metric tons of carbon per year” by 2030. This is just one example of how big corporations, despite their flaws, have the opportunity to make important changes (and it is absolutely their responsibility to do so).
WHAT CAN I DO?
- If you are able to walk or take public transportation to the store, you’re best off shopping in-person. If you’re driving miles to get to the store in a gas-guzzling car, online shopping with ground shipping may be the better (read: less carbon intensive) option.
- When you’re shopping online, choose ground shipping over air. Do you really need that bucket hat tomorrow?
- Buy in bulk to optimize fuel use and packaging materials. Bain found that the emissions of two items shipped separately are 35% higher than if the items were shipped together.
- Needless to say, don’t buy stuff that you don’t need. A result of buying things that we don’t need is returning those things. This happens much more for online purchases than it does with in-person purchases (40% online compared to just 7% in-store). Returns create a lot of unnecessary waste and emissions. Deloitte reports that if shoppers buy four items online and return two, the impact is 70% higher than it would be if shoppers buy the same products at the mall and do not return them. Returning items increases their shipping footprint, but the waste created from returns is also very concerning. Optoro, a company that manages returns for retailers, reports that 5 billion pounds of waste from returns are sent to landfills each year, which is more than three times the amount of waste that Seattle generates annually.