The Complications of Online-shopping vs In-store Shopping

By Samara Almonte

In our last newsletter, Lynn Fitz-Hugh shared with our readers different options for lowering your emissions during the Holiday season, especially when it comes to gift-giving. Although she strongly suggested looking towards acts of service (following COVID-19 regulations of course) as gifts to reduce your carbon footprint, we understand that there may still be people in your life you wish to purchase a gift for. So which option is better for the environment: online-shopping or in store purchases? The truth is, it’s more complicated than it seems. According to an article from Inhabitat in 2019, both options have distinct disadvantages and advantages for the environment. For example, an advantage to online-shopping is “the carbon footprint of running a website alone is drastically less than the energy it takes to power and maintain a building space,” however, “between 12 and 60 percent of all deliveries are unsuccessful on the first try, so they often require a second or third attempt”. 

Additionally, there are many factors that are not always taken into account when studying the effects in-store shopping has on climate change. As Bob Schildgen points out in an article written for Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, these factors include, “shoppers often engage in other activities while at the mall, so miles traveled can’t be assigned only to shopping, a lot more goods purchased online get returned, which requires repackaging and shipping [and] online products often require a whole lot more packaging.” Furthermore, the “free one-day shipping” provided by many online retailers strongly increases the carbon footprint of online purchases, something you can read more about in this article by CBS NEWS. 

So what actions can you take to reduce your carbon footprint during your holiday shopping? Here is a short list of suggestions:

  • Plan ahead! The more holiday shopping you can get done in one trip to the store, the fewer trips you will have to take
  • Planning ahead also applies to online-shopping! If you purchase your gifts with enough time, there is no need to use the “free-one day shipping” option
  • Do your research! This applies for both the recipients of your gifts and the retailers you purchase from. The less returns your friends and family have to make, the lower their carbon footprint will be! As for retailers, look into their eco-friendly packaging options or switch to purchasing gifts from smaller retailers in your area. This helps support a local economy and possibly reduce transportation distance if you are gifting someone near you.

Good luck and happy holidays!