Shopping online versus shopping in-person: which is more environmentally friendly?

The holiday season has arrived and along with it comes the pressures and pitfalls of excess consumerism. While giving and receiving gifts can be thrilling, you might be wondering about the environmental impact of all the shopping you’re doing, and how you can lessen it.

Specifically, you may be wondering about how shopping online compares to shopping in-person, in terms of factors such as the carbon footprint generated. Depending on different variables, either choice may be the wise one! Simply put, things like your method and speed of transportation influence the answer.

Ditch the Need for Speed when Shopping Online

Recent research points towards online shopping being less carbon-intensive- if the same day or next-day shipping option is not used.

  • From a 2021 NY Times article is this fact: “In Jaller’s model of US commerce, shopping exclusively online is about 87% more efficient than doing all of your shopping in-store, in terms of CO₂ emissions and vehicle-miles traveled.”
  • If we want to understand why same day and next-day shipping are so environmentally disastrous, we can consider that, as noted in an article from CBS news, “In 2017, UPS said e-commerce was leading it to make less-efficient deliveries, leading to “more miles, fuel, and emissions per delivery.”
  • The article also notes that “Amazon’s recent decision to make one-day shipping the default for its Prime members is likely to increase its emissions ever further. In 2017, Amazon’s deliveries alone emitted about 19 million metric tons of carbon, according to an estimate from 350 Seattle, a group that works to combat climate heating.” The sheer volume of carbon emissions being generated because of delivery services, especially premium delivery services, means that opting for the fastest option when it comes to shipping also means that the most environmentally taxing option is being chosen.
  • On the flip side, according to a Politico article published last month, “In January, MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab published a study that simulated hundreds of thousands of… scenarios and found online shopping to be more sustainable than traditional retail 75 percent of the time.”

When to Make an In-Person Trip?

However, if we consider other situations such as an example in which a person is able to access a local market through a low carbon method (such as biking), we can understand that shopping in-person may sometimes be the better, more ethical choice that leads to less carbon usage.

  • According to the Sierra Club, “Another study contends that shopping online has a greater impact on the environment, when considering the following…” and goes on to mention considerations such as the fact that “Many people do not drive alone, but go shopping with others, hence total purchases average more than four items per trip, thereby reducing miles driven per item.”
  • The same page notes that online items are returned more frequently and often result in more packaging being used, leading to more landfill waste.

Given these apparent facts, we see how either choice can be the more sustainable one.
So, this holiday season, you may opt to do your shopping online, but way in advance, with ample time for shipping, or in-person, and still be green and efficient.

Here are some more tips on how to make sure your holiday gifting isn’t contributing to environmental issues.

  • Buy Local: Walk to, bike to, or take public transportation to your local artisanal markets. Gifting items from local craftspeople and producers bolsters their efforts while allowing for sweetly unique and handmade gifting.
  • Support sustainable brands and initiatives: Instead of opting for fast-fashion, for example, commit to brands that are incorporating sustainable practices and materials into their stock.
  • Host a Swap Meet: Instead of hosting a traditional White Elephant or similar gift exchange game, encourage your coworkers or friends to bring gently used items you have at home to be swapped according to preference. This way, pre-loved items that still have much to give can be utilized further. Also, encourage people to bring gift wrapping that is recyclable and reusable, such as brown paper bags.
  • Thrift for gifts: If you know someone who won’t mind receiving a thrifted gift, look into thrifting as an option. Make sure to thoroughly clean and/or launder any items before they’re gifted!
  • Don’t feel pressured: During times like Black Friday, we might feel that we must buy things we don’t actually need or even want. Remember that if you don’t have to buy something, you’re not obligated to buy it!
  • Stop to reflect: Remember to choose gifts wisely and think about whether the person receiving the gift will truly use and appreciate it, so that any unnecessary waste can be avoided.
  • Shop at Eco-Building Bargains: Our store, Eco-Building Bargains, hosts a plethora of reclaimed items for sale. If you can’t make it to the brick-and-mortar store,  shop online.

Finding an environmentally friendly way to approach gift giving during the holiday season and beyond can seem daunting, but it’s definitely possible. Implement these tips and facts into your approach to shopping, and hopefully you’ll be successful in your gift giving- at least in terms of your eco-impact!