Online shopping vs in-store shopping: which is more eco-friendly?

online shopping--vs in-store shopping

Ed Zbarzhyvetsky via Deposit Photos

When you want to buy something nowadays, you have a choice between going to a store to get it or ordering it online. Since you have come here to read this article, you want to do what’s best by the environment. So what is the better choice in online shopping vs in-store shopping?

Sometimes, actually, you may have no choice. Products made by local artisans may not be available online. Your local stores may not carry many of the other products you might want. For now, then, let’s suppose you have a choice.

At first, it may seem like  online shopping is better. After all, you don’t have to drive to a store. On second thought, however, a truck delivers your online purchases to you. The question becomes a little more complex. Thinking still more, you realize that whatever you get has a certain amount of embedded energy beyond the fuel it takes for either your car or the delivery truck.

Embedded energy in retail products

stores downtown. online shopping vs in-store shopping

Downtown Buckhannon, West Virginia.
David Mark via Pixabay

By embedded energy, I mean all the energy it takes to acquire raw materials and then manufacture, package, and ship your products.

Very few companies sell directly either to stores or online. They make and package their products. Then they put a certain number of those packages in a carton. Then they pile cartons on a pallet and wrap them in plastic film. When those products leave the factory, several pallets are on a truck that goes to a warehouse.

From that warehouse, the products may go to another warehouse. If you live within a few hundred miles of a factory, the products probably travel from the warehouse to a store (or your home) on other trucks. Otherwise, they travel on ships, railroads, or airplanes. So the distance between the factory and you, and therefore what they travel on, matters a great deal for the amount of embedded energy they contain. 

The only real difference in online shopping vs in-store shopping comes with last leg of transportation. Either you buy it at a store and take it home or you buy it online and a truck delivers it to you. 

If the factory is within a few hundred miles and your online site ships from much farther, online shopping doesn’t look so green!

The delivery truck starts its trip with lots of packages for lots of customers. The driver knows the most efficient route to take to complete all the deliveries. You, on the other hand, may drive to a store and drive back home. Or you may combine several errands in the same trip. It matters. The latter uses energy much more efficiently.

A thought experiment: what are you buying?

traffic jam. online shopping vs in-store shopping

Image by Alexander Grishin via Pixabay

Let’s suppose you want to buy four items. It doesn’t matter what they are, so long as we imagine the same four items either online or in a store.

Suppose you can find all four items at the same store or the same website. At the store, the clerk will put your purchases in a bag. You did remember to take your reusable bag into the store, didn’t you? But when you purchase online, someone puts those items in a box and adds more shrink wrap, bubble wrap, or other stuff you’ll have to throw out just to keep everything stable in the box.

In that case, in-person shopping winds up costing less packaging. That might offset some of your possibly less-efficient transportation choices.

But now suppose that you can’t get all four items at the same store, or even the same shopping center. You’ll need four reusable bags. Otherwise you’ll make it home with four disposable bags after using a lot more gas. Meanwhile, the same items from an online site will come in the same package as before. 

Some added complications in online vs in-store shopping

Lots of delivery companies just leave packages on your porch if you’re not home, but not all do. In that case, the failed delivery attempt counts against the carbon footprint of your purchase. Also, if you decide you don’t like something, returning it to a brick and mortar store is much more efficient that returning it to an online store.

If you live in an urban area with good public transportation, you may have a lower carbon footprint going to a store. If you live in a rural area, or even the suburbs, shopping online may have the lower carbon footprint. 

The carbon footprint of small orders when delivered from a local store is half that of small orders shipped from a distance. The larger the basket size, the less difference it makes. It’s best, then, if possible, to order a large number of items online once than to order the same items in multiple smaller shipments. 

Whatever advantages online shopping may have also disappear if you also frequently go to stores. But here’s the worst: Some people go to a store to see and handle merchandise and then go  home and order it online. That gets the worst of both worlds. Plus, it amounts to stealing from the store. They got value from visiting the store and then declined to pay for it. 

All the descriptions of transportation alternatives assume that you use the standard shipping for your online purchases. If you indulge in two-day shipping, the carbon footprint goes through the roof. 

The bottom line?

So to summarize, shopping either online or in a store is tied for second in eco-friendliness. It would be best if we could walk somewhere and buy products made with local materials. Not many of us can do that. Alas, the only answer to the question of online shopping vs in-store shopping is, “It depends.” 

The question is only part of the broader issue of moving to more sustainable consumption. So think about what you buy and how you buy it. Then make choices you can feel good about.

(Some thoughts from Is online or in-store shopping more eco-friendly? / Uma Campbell, US Green Technology. November 25, 2020) 

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