Should you shop online or in a store? Depending on what you want to buy, sometimes you have no choice.
Otherwise, a number of factors can influence how you decide.
For example, which is greener? At first thought, online shopping seems greener. You don’t have to drive to a store.
On second thought, the question becomes more complex. After all, a truck must deliver the product to your doorstep.
Whatever you buy and however you buy it raises multiple questions about sustainability, What kinds of transportation does it take from the factory to your home or office? For that matter, are there any differences in packaging?
For the sake of comparison, let’s assume you want four different items. Let’s further assume they’re not large items. If you bought them at the store, they would all fit in one bag. It really doesn’t matter what the items are, so long as they’re the same products whether you get them online or in a store.
Products probably move from the factory to a warehouse. Large retailers have their own warehouses. Smaller retailers obtain products from wholesalers. Probably only the smallest manufacturers sell directly to retail stores. Whatever you buy online will probably be shipped from a warehouse, which may or may not also ship merchandise to stores.
Therefore, the simplest transportation model is from a factory to a warehouse to either a store or to you directly. In fact, many products make more than one stop between the factory and whoever eventually buys them. Transportation may include cargo ship, airfreight, rail, or various sizes of truck.
So far, then, the transportation issue seems to be a wash. The last leg of the trip, however, can make a big difference. When you buy from a store, you drive your car to the store. When you buy online, it arrives on a truck of some kind, perhaps by UPS or the post office.
So if you buy online, how far did it travel between the warehouse and whatever local distribution center brings it to you? And how many stops did it make? It begins to look like online purchases include a larger transportation footprint.
On the other hand, each shipment includes much more than your purchase. How can you calculate your share of that transportation and compare it with the cost of driving your car to the store? Also, how many other intermediate steps between the factory and the store does your online purchase eliminate?
It is not safe to say that online shopping is either greener or not greener than shopping in a store as far as transportation is concerned.
This post assumes a list of four fairly small items. Each will have its own packaging. If you buy it in a store, the cashier will put it in a bag. You did remember to take your cloth bag into the store, didn’t you?
Each of those items left the factory in the packaging you see on the shelves. It was in a case of a dozen or so other items of the same kind. That case and others like it were packed in much larger boxes.
In turn, your item you bought left the factory as a shipment of a number of those boxes piled on wooden pallets and wrapped in plastic shrink-wrap. By the time you purchase it, someone has emptied all of the various layers of packaging, leaving only what you take home with you, or is delivered to your door.
When you order online, however, someone has to collect all four of your items and combine them in another package for shipping. That means at least another carton. It may also include more shrink-wrap, packing peanuts, or other packing material that you must discard.
It appears from our thought experiment that it is greener to buy the same four items from a store than online. Transportation may be a wash, but your online purchase inevitably adds more packaging.
Real life, of course, is never as simple as a thought experiment. You might very well be able to order items from one web site that you could never find at any one store. In that case, all of the comparisons we have considered become irrelevant.
Some factors in choosing sustainable shopping
There is no simple rule of thumb to determine what kind of shopping is greener. Most people probably think only of their own convenience. I have written a whole series of posts on the cost of convenience. We should always take time to be mindful of hidden economic and environmental costs and decide if they’re worth paying.
Sustainability means something more than and different from “green.” For example, the local economy depends in part on the health of its retail sector. And that, in turn, depends on the viability of shops that are not part of some national chain.
More and more of these shops are establishing an online presence, but the sustainable choice is to patronize them in person if you can.
Some people, unfortunately, go to a local store to see and handle merchandise. Then they order the same products online. If that’s you, shame on you! Stop it immediately!
- It amounts to stealing from the local store. You received value from visiting the store and refused to pay for that value.
- Revenue lost because shoppers think they can get a better deal on line or perhaps avoid paying sales tax weakens the bottom line of the local store. It may contribute to its failure.
- Empty storefronts make a shopping district less attractive and therefore threaten the viability of other stores.
- You are adding all of the transportation costs of shopping in the store to all the transportation and packaging costs of online shopping. That is the least green of all possible choices.
I asked if online shopping is greener. Essentially, I answered my question, “Well, um, um.” The question sounds simple. The issues it raises are not. If we change the question to which is more sustainable, the issues are still complicated, but finding a good answer simply requires looking past our own momentary convenience.
Being mindful of the broader consequences of personal decisions probably leads everyone but sociopaths to more sustainable choices. Whether those choices result in shopping in a store or online, we can all live with them.