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Online vs. In-Store shopping – which is more E.C.?

It is that time of year. Parents, siblings, cousins, colleagues, significant others to shop for.

The question is, how to do so while remaining environmentally conscious?


Online vs In-Store

The Census Bureau shows 64% of Americans spending shopping time instores, compared to 36% online. In theory, online delivery requires more packaging and resources for delivery trucks, but studies show a carbon-based fuel automobile driving to and from a store with few items is nowhere as efficient as a UPS truck delivering a load of merchandise to houses only a few blocks apart in a neighborhood.

Think of it this way. If you buy an item in-store, the manufacturer already used resources and packaging to deliver that item to the store, then you use resources commuting to and from said store to buy the item. You eliminate one step, by ordering directly from the manufacturer.

This 2009 study from Carnegie Mellon’s Green Design Institute showed e-commerce as the less energy-consumptive option approximately 80% of the time. More energy is used in transportation than in packaging. That may seem counterintuitive, considering poor fuel efficiency of delivery trucks and amount of packaging that arrives on shoppers’ doorsteps, but on average, e-commerce uses about 30% less energy than traditional retail. Although packaging accounts for 22% of carbon dioxide emissions of an item purchased online, customer transportation accounts for 65% of emissions when buying the equivalent item at a retail store.

A 2013 study from MIT showed similar data; the further away someone lived from a store and the less efficient the method of transportation, then the more eco-friendly it would be to buy online. The paper found that in-store shoppers have a carbon footprint almost twice that of online shoppers who never go inside a physical store.

This does not mean we have a pass to Amazon Prime without consequences.

Online shopping is only greener than visiting local stores if we do 3 simple things:

  1. Plan ahead and combine orders, to get everything you need in fewer shipments
  2. Avoid expedited shipping (even if it is free)
  3. Buy less stuff (prevent returns)

Slower and more consolidated shipping saves resources by reducing the number of trucks on the road and simplifying their transport logistics (less trips with more calculated routes). This is why Amazon has the option and incentives for “No-Rush Shipping” and I urge you to take advantage of this. Every site you visit, look for options. Include shipping comments, like “ecopackaging” or minimal packaging “no plastic please” to make an E.C. standpoint known.


Green Gift Giving

The first point here, of course, is to gift products you know will be used. And check in with your friends and family to see if they have eco-friendly goals. Are they looking for sustainable beauty products, or need plastic-free lifestyle alternatives? Would they prefer a charitable gift over a material one? Does their wishlist item have a greener alternative?

EarthHero.com is an amazing resource for eco-friendly gifts, from Zero Waste New Home Kits to a Spa Day Gift Box with reusable items like a candle that is easily turned into a wine glass.

Invest in eco-friendly gift wrapping! Like these cute santa-phants from Wrappily printed on recycled newsprint with soy-based ink.

Consider if your significant other might prefer a thoughtful gift. It is more meaningful to write a poem, paint a picture, or gift a trip or experience than buying a plastic knickknack that will go out of style in 6 months.


Consider Gifting Love Instead

You know what I mean. Organize thoughtful activities or meals, instead of traditional gift-swapping events.

Watch and Share this YouTube video from The Minimalists as far and wide as you can, because the message is oh so powerful!


If you want to make the right environmental choice, consider buying less, buying used, combining shipments, combining trips, and walk, bicycle, or take public transit rather than drive. And of course, when buying in-store, bring your own bags.

Thanks for reading and choosing greener choices this holiday season!