Is it greener to shop online?

Last week, the New York Times published an article about eBay's green initiatives, "As Earth Day Nears, eBay Shows Its Green Side." The article quotes Michael Brune, the executive director of the activist group Rainforest Action Network.

“A lot of the things sold on eBay are new merchandise, and last time I checked the Postal Service still used fossil fuels for all of their planes and their trucks, so it’s not sustainable,” he said, referring to how eBay sellers ship items. “It’s fair to say that buying used goods on eBay is better for the environment, but let’s not get carried away and say this is the greenest thing since recycled paper.”

So is the carbon footprint for new goods bought online higher than that of items bought in a store (which are also shipped using fossil-fuel burning trucks)?

That depends, according to a study by Carnegie Mellon University's Green Design Institute. (1.4 mb pdf)

If you choose ground shipping rather than air (express) for your online purchase, you will have a significantly lower carbon footprint for the transaction than if you bought it at a traditional bricks and mortar store. The difference is in the number of times the object is shipped before it gets to the local store...more times than if you bought it online. The one caveat is that if you choose express shipping, the carbon impact gets closer to that of a retail store purchase.

There's also something to be said for being able to "visit" multiple online stores and search until you find exactly what you want, as opposed to physically driving to different stores, where you may settle on something not exactly right and then later have to buy something else. Also, while there are advertisements online, and it's just as possible to impulse buy in a web environment as anywhere else, there's something to be said for the way entering a physical store appeals to your senses. Stores are meticulously constructed to get you to walk through the entire area, and linger to make unplanned purchases. Though it is easy to get tricked by confusing shipping rates when you're shopping online.

Carnegie Mellon's study did seem to be describing businesses with multiple tiers of organization--a franchise more so than, say, a local business showcasing local products. Where there are fewer steps between producer and consumer, it seems like the benefits of buying online would diminish.

So I think the general idea is: Buy used, if possible. If not, buy from a local store that stocks local goods. Other than that, shopping online and using ground shipping is probably better than buying the same product from a chain store.

Hat Tip: Lighter Footstep

Update: See Treehugger for more stats on why it's better to shop online.

Tags: Carbon footprint, Carbon impact, E-commerce, Online, Shipping, Shopping

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