Shipping vs Shopping – The Impact of Buying Online or In Store

Should I shop online or go to the store?

I’ve always been curious about what has a bigger environmental impact – ordering something online and having it shipped to my house OR just going to the store to get it. Of course there are so many variables every case is different, but in general what’s the difference?

To find out, I read five different studies from various sources and they all had the same conclusion: on average ordering products online has a smaller carbon footprint than driving to a store. 

Up to the point where a product is shipped or purchased in a store, it’s journey is pretty much the same. Most products will go through a long journey through a supply chain before being ready for purchase online or in a store. Getting a product through that final step and into the hands of the consumer is called the “last mile”.

For determining what has a larger impact, the last mile is really where the rubber meets the road. As you can imagine there are countless scenarios here based on where you live, what you drive, what the delivery dude drives, how many houses are on his route, etc.  

  • Delivery Transportation – The efficiency of vehicles and routes varies widely, but the generally accepted standard for these studies boils down to the delivery truck traveling between .1 and 1 miles for each package delivered. For purpose of calculating carbon emissions, most of the studies I read assumed a vehicle the size of a standard UPS truck.
  • Customer Transportation – There are several variables around the carbon emissions that result from a consumer going to the store:
    • Trip length – Most studies are assuming somewhere around 12 miles round trip.
    • Fuel economy – Most studies assume an average sized vehicle roughly equivalent to a sedan like a Toyota Corolla.
    • Purposes per trip – A consumer may make a dedicated trip to the store from their home or could pick up their purchase on their way home from work. Some studies give figures for both.
  • Packaging – The difference between individual packaging for shipping to end destination or bulk packaging is considered in one of these studies.
  • Electricity Consumption – This addresses household energy consumption due to shopping online, the energy of distribution warehouses, logistics, and in some cases a store front. Overall these variables were minor factors in final calculations of emissions.

The variable that makes the biggest difference by far is the fuel burned in delivery vs pickup.

It turns out that for the most part, the logistics of shipping are pretty advanced and the carbon footprint of e-tailing is considerably lower than driving to the store yourself. A delivery truck can make 120 drops on a 50 mile route, while the average trip to the store is around 12 miles and you may only be  getting 1-2 items. Even though delivery trucks don’t get as good of gas mileage as the average car, their routes are much more efficient.

If you’re having trouble deciding which has a higher carbon footprint in your situation, consider the following variables:

  • Your vehicle – It may be more efficient to drive to the store if:
    • You have a highly efficient vehicle (especially if you’re charging from a renewable source like solar)
    • It’s on your way to or from another place you’re already going
    • You’re going to be buying a lot of stuff in one trip (over 24 non-food items to be exact)
    • Taking the bus and other public transit were not deeply vetted throughout the studies but depending on how many items you are buying in one trip, it is more efficient than online shopping most circumstances.
  • Proximity to store
    • If you’re only a few miles away and you can limit the number of times you go it will likely have a lower carbon footprint
  • What you’re ordering
    • Is this something you can swing by the store to get next time you’re in the area?
    • Do you need it… like… now?
    • Is it something you can ordered used online (like a book) instead of having to buy a new one?

Summary:

The research suggests that, in terms of carbon emissions, shopping online has a much smaller impact. The studies range anywhere from 18-87%, but it’s important to note the wide variety of variables here and think about your particular situation. Most of the difference between driving to the store and ordering online is determined by your vehicle.

As you can imagine, if you have an electric car that is charged by solar the margins are going to change considerably. At the same time, advances in logistics and the use of renewable energy in shipping fleets are continuing to make delivery less impactful.

So, if you’re living in a suburban area and you’re buying a few items at a time, it’s safe to say online shopping will lower your carbon footprint. However, I wouldn’t forgo stopping by the store on the way home to pick up a few items just so you could order them online.

 

 


Quick overview of each study:

Life Cycle Comparison of Traditional Retail and E-commerce Logistics for Electronic Products: A Case Study of buy.com

Source: Green Design Institute – Carnegie Mellon University

Date Published: 2008

This study focused on the energy use and CO2 emissions associated with flash drives – either delivering them to a home via e-commerce or traditional retail. Using data from buy.com and UPS they compared the impact between delivery and in-store pickup to find that: “Overall, e-commerce had about 30% lower energy consuption and CO2 emmisions compared to traditional retail using calculated mean values.”

 

The global move toward Internet shopping and its influence on pollution: an empirical analysis

Source: Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg

Date Published: 2015

This study takes a bit of a different angle by researching the influence of “Internet retailing” on CO2 emissions in 77 countries with data from 2000-2013. It is a very large scale assessment of carbon dioxide emissions and Internet retailing that utilizes models to compare emissions variables such as GDP growth, electricity consumption, urbanization, and Internet retailing. The authors conclude that while all other factors increase pollution with growth, Internet retailing has the opposite trend – an increase in Internet retailing will reduce CO2 emissions.

 

Measuring transport related CO2 emissions induced by online and brick-and-mortar retailing

Source: Transportation Research Part D Transport and Environment

Date Published: 2015

This study was focused on the Dalecarlia region of Sweden where consumers ordering products online pick up their packages from local distribution centers. The study evaluated the difference in emissions between a consumer picking up their online purchase from a distribution center and going to a brick-and-mortar store to purchase their item. The data focused solely on electronics products. In short, the study found that e-tailing had an average decrease in CO2 footprint by 84%.

 

Effects of E-Commerce on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Source: Journal of Industrial Ecology 6, No.2, pages 83-97

Date Published: 2003

This paper is based on a case study of e-grocery customers in Helsinki Finland. The researchers compared the estimated GHG emissions of customers with those of competing delivery methods. The data suggested that GHG emissions could be reduced by 18-87% depending on the home delivery methods used.

 

Comparative analysis of the carbon footprints of conventional and online retailing

Source: International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management

Date Published: 2010

Where the previous study focused on grocery items, this study concentrates on the non-food retail sector. One interesting part of this paper is that it factors in delivery failure rates which can contribute to decreased efficiency for deliveries. The results suggest that an average trip to the store to buy a non-food item results in 24 times as much carbon dioxide emissions than ordering that product online. So, in order for that person’s trip to produce less carbon dioxide, they would need to buy more than 24 non-food items in a single trip. This assumes one item per drop for home delivery. If more items were delivered at one time it could bring the emissions down considerably.

 

Dave

I am a minimalist, environmentalist, and conscious consumer with a background in environmental studies, conservation, and tech. I founded prch to help others be more sustainable and realize an alternative to consumerism.