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Online vs In-Store Shopping: Which wins?

Uploaded: Nov 3, 2019
Now that Halloween is over, ‘tis the season for holiday shopping. I’ve been wondering whether shopping in stores or online generates fewer emissions. The answer is, it depends. Are you an efficient in-store shopper? Are you a “next-day shipping” kind of online shopper? Where is your online merch coming from? How susceptible are you to buying “just one more thing”? There are a number of factors that come into play. I’ll go over a few of them here and end with some tips on how to make your shopping more climate-friendly.

If you think about the differences between in-store and online shopping for just a few minutes, you can probably come up with a pretty good list of what generates extra emissions. The trick is quantifying this, and there’s been some work on that, though more on some aspects than others. Here are some of the factors that affect shopping emissions.

Transportation. This is the biggest factor. What types of vehicles are used, how far do they go, and how full are they (of people and/or products)? People tend to view online shopping as an easy win here because products are shipped to homes more efficiently. But that’s not always the case.

Packaging. Is your recycling bin packed with cardboard boxes? Tired of popping those air bag fillers? People view in-store shopping as an easy win here, and that is usually (but not always) true.

Browsing and Returning. How are you exploring your options, how often are you returning or exchanging your purchases, and how/where are you returning them? It is often best to research items online, but sometimes there is no substitute for seeing the item in person. A store visit can help avoid a subsequent return.

Operational Overhead. What is the cost of operating the physical vs the online stores? This is an easy win for online shopping, though it is not as big a factor as the above items.

Overconsumption. How likely are you to buy something you might not have bought otherwise? Is online shopping too frictionless? Or in-store shopping too tempting?

I’m going to go over these in more detail, but keep in mind there are even more factors that come into play. As one example, Professor Arde Faghri of the University of Delaware, who led a study to evaluate the impact of online shopping in Newark, said in 2016: “We found that the total number of vehicles miles traveled hasn’t decreased at all with the growth of online shopping. This suggests that people are using the time they save by shopping on the internet to do other things like eating out at restaurants, going to the movies, or visiting friends.” Hmm. For now, let’s look at some data about shopping by itself.

Transportation Emissions
You would think this would be an easy win for online shopping. A person driving to a store surely uses more emissions than a delivery truck packed with products and routed efficiently around a residential area, right? Yes, that’s true.

Source: 2016 HBS alumni article

While some people bike or walk to stores, and some people go to stores on their way to/from work or school, online delivery is generally more efficient. An oft-cited 2013 MIT study by Dimitri Weideli, who modeled the environmental impacts of different types of shopping, indicates that the transportation emissions for in-store shopping are 2-3 times those of online shopping, even assuming you know what you want and where to find it. But when faster shipping (air delivery) is used, online transportation emissions double and the overall comparison benefits in-store shopping.

Emissions comparison for in-store (“traditional”) vs online (“cybernaut”) shopping, with the right column reflecting fast shipping (air delivery). Source: 2013 MIT study

Transmission emissions can make or break the case for online shopping. Miguel Jaller, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-lead of the Sustainable Freight Initiative at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, says in an article he wrote for Vox: “Online shopping would be greener than driving to local stores if we did three simple things: 1) Planned ahead and consolidated our orders so we get everything we need in fewer shipments; 2) Avoided expedited shipping (even if it’s free); 3) Bought less stuff.”

Interestingly, Amazon has recently announced a feature to help people do just that (well, the first two; I’m not holding my breath for the third…). Your orders are batched up and delivered together on your chosen day of the week (“Amazon Day”), as long as you order about two days before. Fewer boxes, less hassle, and fewer emissions. You can always request faster shipping when you need something quickly. On a recent Amazon Day, I got two boxes and an envelope. One box had most of my orders, packed tightly together. The other box had a single 4-ounce bottle of vanilla wrapped in bubble wrap rattling around with a few air bags. And the envelope had a small screwdriver. I guess they were afraid the vanilla would break or leak and so packed it separately. The screwdriver was presumably at a different distribution center.

Etsy is taking a different approach. They say that a whopping “98 percent of Etsy’s total emissions stem from items shipped from our sellers to our buyers.” So they are now offsetting their shipping emissions. Offsetting is not a real fix -- it is much better to reduce the actual emissions -- but it’s a start. At the same time, shipping companies are finding ways to reduce their own emissions with better routing, more efficient vehicles, and alternative fuels.

Browsing, Returns, and Failed Deliveries
Given that transportation emissions are a big part of the carbon footprint of shopping, you want to avoid returning merchandise. A surprisingly large 20-30% of online purchases are returned, compared with about 5-10% of in-store items. Lots of information is available about returns, since the cost and overhead of processing them is a big issue for ecommerce markets. Apparel and luxury items are most likely to be returned, so it can make a lot of sense to purchase those items in stores or shop online for only those brands and styles that you are familiar with. You want to avoid being the shopper that Shopify refers to as “The Fitting Roomer” -- someone who orders several sizes or styles with the intent of returning a few.

Shoppers often “bracket” their online purchases, buying multiple items with the intention of returning some of them. Source: 2017 Narvar survey

Even though returns are not fast deliveries, they still add significantly to your shopping emissions. Failed and/or stolen deliveries can also be an issue. If you are shopping on Amazon, setting your Amazon Day for Saturday could help, or any of the other mechanisms that Amazon has set up to help with this (e.g., lockers).

Have you ever unpacked a box in a box in a box? Packaging is a big source of emissions for online shopping, as shown in the chart from the MIT study above. It also leads to waste. While over 90% of cardboard is recycled, a typical box is just 48% recycled material. So it is important to reduce the amount that is used. One good bet is to batch your purchases. But the industry itself is changing too.

Because online shopping is becoming more common every year, some vendors are beginning to design packaging specifically for ecommerce.

Source: 2019 US Department of Commerce report

Products intended for internet sales can have much less packaging than store-oriented varieties. They do not need to be sealed in impermeable plastic to prevent theft, and they do not need to fight for an on-shelf presence. A household cleaner in a large plastic bottle can be reduced to a small tablet (just add water), and the online display-ability would not be impacted. Here is an example from Amazon showing more efficient, sustainable, and user-friendly packaging of a razor for online sales.

More efficient and “frustration free” packaging of a razor for online sales. Source: Amazon video

Some of the benefits of the revised packaging, which is 100% paper-based. Source: Amazon video

Packaging is typically 10-20% of the cost of goods sold; in some cases a compact design for online sales can reduce that cost, especially when shipping is taken into account. Amazon and Walmart both have recently announced initiatives to encourage more vendors to reduce packaging and make it more sustainable. But it takes some thinking because the online fulfillment process can be tough on products. Amazon touches a typical item 20 times, as opposed to 5 times for in-store fulfillment. And while a brick-and-mortar store’s delivery process will generally keep items upright, Amazon’s process does not. The challenge for vendors is to package their items robustly and sustainably while keeping costs down.

The lowest emission purchase is the purchase not made. The ease of shopping online is not helping to reduce our consumption. As Miguel Jaller puts it: “We used to be limited by the stores in our town and their selection. Now we can shop from almost anywhere and get almost anything — and we do.” Furthermore, the shopping and payment experience is designed to be as friction-free as possible. My daughter says it’s much easier for her to over-buy online because she doesn’t have the experience of handing over her hard-earned cash to someone else, as she does in a store. Plus she tends to be optimistic about what she orders and when it arrives, it may not have been something she would have purchased in-store. So for her, shopping in stores means she buys less.

Forbes, however, has data showing that people tend to do more impulse purchasing in stores. “89 percent of women and 78 percent of men who visit physical stores shared that they add additional items to their cart beyond their identified need. By comparison, a lower 67 percent of men and 77 percent of women reported adding extra items to their carts when shopping online.”

So, do you save emissions by shopping online? It depends. If you need electronics, say a wireless router or an air filter, researching and buying online seems like the way to go. For something like a chair or clothing, driving to (and purchasing at!) a store with a good selection where you can try things out is best unless you have a really clear idea of what you want. For same-day or next-day purchases, I’d go for a side-trip to a local store, which has the additional benefit of supporting our local economy and strengthening our community.

In either case, here are some tips to lower emissions:

Online shopping? Don’t choose express shipping, even if it’s free. Bundle your purchases. Don’t buy to return. And prefer more local purchases (if you can tell).

Shopping in-store? Search online first. Consider looking online or calling to check availability. Support a local shop you can bike or walk to, or bundle your trip with another trip.

I love the convenience and selection of online shopping, so I am glad to see so much industry focus on reducing emissions for shipping and packaging. I will try to do my part by choosing slower delivery, minimizing returns, and, yes, buying less stuff.

Notes and References
1. There are a number of good overview articles on this same topic, including this one from Ensia, this one from NRDC and this one from a Canadian news organization.

2. CNN has an interesting article (and video) on fast shipping, including a reference to this MIT study on whether people will choose greener but slower shipping when offered.

3. This (video) overview of Amazon’s fulfillment process is eye-opening, and has lots of examples of improved packaging. A good overview of Amazon’s packaging reduction program can be found here.

4. More information on cardboard recycling can be found here and here.

5. Shopify has great information on the problem of returns.

6. Some of the academic centers working on transportation and logistics can be found at MIT, UC Davis, and U. Washington. It seems like a great area to work in these days.

7. I saw a number of references to a 2018 book called Decarbonizing Logistics by Alan McKinnon. I haven’t read it myself, though.

8. UPS, FedEx, and DHL, are all working to reduce their emissions. Even if we don’t get these cool bikes in our area, the electric trucks and vans will be a big win.

Current Climate Data (September 2019)

The global land and ocean surface temperature departure from average for September 2019 tied with 2015 as the highest for the month of September in the 140-year NOAA global temperature dataset record, which dates back to 1880.

Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 3, 2019 at 6:35 am

Chicken and egg situation.

Two examples.

OSH closed. Our family had been OSH shoppers due to proximity and that we passed OSH so often going to highway 101 that stopping there was easy on our way somewhere, on our way home, or an easy errand for a weekend project. OSH closed so we were forced to go out of our way to use alternatives that were much more difficult to use. Accordingly we shopped online for things we would have bought easily. ACE has now opened. We are back to visiting the same location for the previous reasons.

Another example. Macys men store in Stanford has closed. The men in the family used Macys as a go to store because they could park nearby and were not faced with women stuff as soon as they entered. Now Macys mens store has closed they have to park and walk past so many stores they are not interested in and are faced with handbags, perfumes, jewelry, before they reach the merchandise designed for men. They are now shopping online because what had been a 10 minute chore to buy a six pack of socks has become an episode of facing the marketing frenzy designed for bored housewives. Shopping malls have no interest to men on a purpose. Men will shop online (unless they trust their women to buy them the right kind of socks without buying them anything else they see on impulse which then has to be worn so as not to hurt their feelings).

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 3, 2019 at 8:12 am

More thoughts on the issue.

Friday we had a very small package delivered, the contents were small but costly for the size. The delivery truck was large and made this one delivery then drove back the way he had come. Perhaps that delivery on our street took him less than 5 minutes. If he had needed a signature, add another minute. Obviously I have no idea where his next delivery was or how long it took him to get there. I have been told that these delivery drivers are on a tight schedule and get either a bonus for getting back ahead of schedule or fined for being late back. This must make them take less time for personal breaks (potty breaks, food breaks, etc.) so are more likely to eat while driving as a guess. Let's guess that this delivery was made mid to late afternoon, while children were riding bikes home from school and the early evening commute was underway.

What do these delivery trucks do to traffic conditions? Forgetting the emissions or economics of this, these single deliveries are adding to traffic in our neighborhoods and also on our highways. For every single purchase which has to be delivered to a home, there is more vehicles on the road probably in daylight hours. A large delivery to the local Target could be done early in the morning or late at night when there is less traffic about. A stop at Target as part of an errand run to get groceries, pick up dry cleaning, drop kids off at soccer practice, on the way home from work, would probably be a slight detour to a single car trip. The effect that slight detour on local traffic is probably a lot less than the single delivery truck driving fast on local streets (and yes they do drive faster than someone driving home with the kids).

Online shopping may well be convenient for some (if you don't mind waiting a day for something you can't try on or feel the quality before purchase), but even after the cost and convenience are taken into account, the cost to traffic volume is high. If a street of 50 homes only has 1 delivery per home per week, that is still an added vehicle on the street of 50 times per week or 10 times per business day. Am I missing something here?

Cause and effect of online shopping is chicken and egg mentality. We are shopping online more which causes local retail to decline which makes us shop online more.

Posted by eileen , a resident of another community,
on Nov 3, 2019 at 4:15 pm

Don't miss the Amazon video mentioned in the Notes and Reference #3. While it is certainly a bit of self promotion for Amazon, it is quite interesting. Makes me more thoughtful about shipping. Now if only the narrator would look at the camera.

Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 3, 2019 at 9:07 pm

Excellent analysis.

Another factor is timing. If you don't have a lot of time and you need something specific fast, then it's easy to order a lot of things just in case and have to ship back a lot of stuff, which is just wasteful. It's much easier these days to find what you need at a local store by searching on line or calling, and then picking it up on your errand rounds. There are delivery services, too, although it's tough to say whether that's less wasteful given the extremes of cardboard waste these create. Another thing we do is have something shipped to the store and then pick it up when we go shopping for other needs.

Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 4, 2019 at 8:52 am

Great story about all the new sources of waste because of ecommerce, and very little of it is getting recycled:
Web Link

"Many in the recycling business say that as consumers receive more products directly, they recycle less and throw away more �" in part because of confusion over what is recyclable. According to a report from Moore Recycling Associates, in 2015, consumers recycled less than 7 percent of all plastic films and wraps. And, in 2013, the average recycling rate of all packaging (excluding compost) was less than 25 percent, according to Resource Recycling Systems."

The article also says the City of San Antonio saw a 30% increase in cardboard in just one year. The flood of cardboard and other waste from ecommerce, including those ice packs which can't be recycled has been an ongoing problem.

Online shopping can be convenient but brick-and-mortar is convenient in other ways. Plus, with the latter, you're more likely to see the people involved in delivering the product to you, and know whether they're getting acceptable wages or not.

Posted by Lack of product in stores, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Nov 4, 2019 at 10:28 am

Lack of product in stores is a registered user.

The MAIN reason I shop online is the lack of an available product in the store. I always use in-store pickup if a product is available.

Posted by Online shopping sucks., a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Nov 4, 2019 at 7:06 pm

Online shopping sucks. is a registered user.

I HATE, HATE, HATE shopping online. So much poorly made junk. I can't see the quality of a product online. Reviews are unreliable.

I hate that the nearby stores that I used to be able to bike to are closing.

I hate that they track my purchases and use my private purchasing information to bug me with advertising.

I miss retail.

Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 5, 2019 at 1:10 pm

One thing I would like to see emphasized more is the negative pollution impact of all the -diesel- delivery vehicles. Particulates from diesels are a major health issue, and we've all got delivery trucks going past our doors constantly. I would be more favorable to online shopping if the delivery vehicles were EVs, mentioned in item 8. To me, that is the top priority.

"Online shopping sucks" above discusses the low quality of many online items. The high-quality items are hiding in a sea of schlock, and, half the reviews are written by either the seller or a competitor. But, in recent years I've found it almost impossible to find many items in retail stores, and I'm forced to go online. You pretty much have to shop online now for some things. Hopefully, they can find a way to deliver those things in EVs using less cardboard.

Posted by Kenny, a resident of University South,
on Nov 5, 2019 at 9:24 pm

I stopped shopping at most brick-and-mortar stores ages ago. Who needs limited selection, higher prices, slogging through traffic, hassling with parking, and waiting in long lines at some stores because they are understaffed? A little googling, clickety-click and done! Sure, there is tons of crap online, but there is also lots of quality merchandise. "Online" does not mean only Amazon and eBay.

Posted by VS, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Nov 6, 2019 at 12:42 pm

VS is a registered user.

Good food for thought about our choices and the choices made along the supply chain. Thank you.

Posted by Rachel G, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Nov 6, 2019 at 1:04 pm

Rachel G is a registered user.

Thank you for yet another thoughtful column looking at how our behavior affects the environment. I definitely feel the pull to make unplanned purchases when I go to stores and see things displayed enticingly. One thing that keeps me from buying extra things I don't need is that I usually ride my bike to the store and have limited carrying capacity. I've known for a long time that biking reduces my emissions for transportation, but I hadn't previously put much thought into how it reduces my accumulation of unnecessary purchase.

I like the concept that whichever way we choose to buy things, buying less will make the biggest reduction in our negative impact.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Nov 7, 2019 at 1:08 pm

> The lowest emission purchase is the purchase not made.

I did not even know that. Before the men's store used to be over in the women's
store ... and the parking outside used to be a big dirt lot. I remember for years,
decades going to Macy's and Emporium and then Banana Republic. Now I hardly
set foot over in Stanford Shopping Center. My old go-to for light jackets and hiking
boots, The North Face moves and that building is still vacant, and I have never
visited the store in Stanford Mall.

I like shopping online, but it's harder to tell what you are getting and to get the
right size, but thankfully Amazon makes it so easy to return stuff with their local
lockers or UPS/USPS drop-offs.

But a lot of people do not go to the mall just for shopping, they do it to walk around,
see what's new, maybe eat or get a drink or snack. It's hard to compare that to

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Nov 8, 2019 at 11:53 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

I love these comments. It does seem true that we are killing retail with so much online shopping. That means it's even more important for online shopping to be much cleaner than it is now (and for us all to be careful with fast shipping and returns). I don't know if we can turn back the clock to store-based shopping. Maybe one problem is that we are more picky than we used to be. For example, my local grocery has vanilla, but it's not very good, so I bought a nicer version online. That's to the point Professor Miguel Jaller makes that "Now we can shop from almost anywhere and get almost anything — and we do.” Is that a bad thing? Should I have settled for the lame vanilla?

I also like @CPAs insightful comment that malls provide multiple services. In that regard, I thought the finding from the study in Newark was interesting -- that even when people shopped online they weren't driving less because they were going out for meals or movies in their freed-up time and doing all those things they might have done in the malls anyway. So the evaluation isn't as simple as we might think.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Nov 8, 2019 at 7:49 pm

I don't have it in hand, but a couple years ago The New Yorker had an extensive article on Amazon. This early take was on the pressures on individual voices, viewpoints, writers, publishers since Amazon started with books.
I am worried about the mediocrity/mass marketing/hardball deals (with producers, suppliers) of Amazon, and potential increasing lack of access/awareness of the general public to a wider range of opinions.
I personally see emissions-spewing delivery vehicles frequently on my residential street, and other app delivery people (driving poorly, often), I know, delivering items that could be easily picked up by the homeowner at nearby CVS, etc. It's become a status symbol here to have lots of deliveries, as if that makes one “important."
Never mind the excessive vehicle trips.
Back to Amazon....I read in (Outside magazine, I'm pretty sure) about mountaineering retailers being run out of business by Amazon, too. These people had expertise and ran retail operations in a variety of locales that sound charming, in various states. But the consumer receives heavy advertising from Amazon, seeks the cheapest, and sadly forgoes the individual guidance, interesting range of products of the adventure/outdoor/mountaineering retail or mail order businesses.
I think we need constant effective education to be accurate with Recycling. Those with hired nannies and housekeepers seem to not follow the rules (unbroken down large cardboard boxes sticking up out of blue recycling bin, even elementary space wasting actions like that!) Heaven help us with recycling plastics!!

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