Bricks and mortar... or your mouse?
So what's a green shopper to do? Is it better to buy online and have a product shipped, or to patronize a local merchant or the closest big box store? Does the answer change depending on the product? If you can walk to make your local purchase, does that change the equation? What about buying in bulk? While the least we can do it avoid extra driving trips to the store, what else can we do to minimize the impact of buying things we need? Let us know how you shop green. Here's the latest from our green team:
Okay, so unless you live in a cave (and btw, we have no problem with anyone who does), you need to shop for things: food, personal items, clothing, daily necessities, you have to buy stuff to live your life. Of course, there are those of you who just really like to shop, which is not a crime, so long as you don’t go all Paris Hilton on us. For those of you with a Green Conscious, you’ve probably already wondered how you might save a carbon footprint or two while still satisfying your needs and wants. If you buy on-line, do you save the planet from excess emissions? If you buy in a store, is that better because it’s only a ten minutes from where you live?
The simple answer is: there’s no simple answer.
There are many things to take into consideration but certainly, the place to start is the sustainability practices of the company you are clicking from: materials, manufacturing and social responsibility which definitely contribute to determining the environmental effects of your purchase.
Traditional Retail Shopping
The most important area to measure the environmental impact of buying at a brick and mortar store is distribution. Which means, planes, trains, automobiles and trucks in particular, which use the most energy while at the same time, create the most pollution. Adding up the number of links it takes in the supply chain to get merchandise from the manufacturer to your home will help clarify the eco-effects of your purchase.
A report compiled by the Interactive Media in Retail Group used the distribution steps it takes to sell books to illustrate the traditional retail process in contrast to those steps involved in e-commerce. Once a book is printed for distribution, it is sent to a national warehouse and from there, it is shipped to multiple regional warehouses and then again on to even more locations which make up the stores committed to carrying that book. After all that, the customer then drives their vehicle to the store to purchase said book and bring it home. It sounds like (and is) a whole lot of carbon to get the product to your local store.
Still using books as an example, it looks like e-commerce does considerably reduce the number of transportation "legs" involved. Items are shipped to order and sent directly from the warehouse to the customer or even "pre-sold" before they are actually available, further reducing inventory and waste with less over-stock being transported out only to be transported back when it doesn’t sell. The downside to e-commerce is that it often involves airfreight, which requires considerably higher fuel and energy usage and produces more pollution than ground transportation. However, the overall carbon output of transporting multiple orders in one truck or one plane is still more efficient than multiple consumers driving multiple vehicles to multiple stores.
On-line shopping does seem to be a better option for the environment and will probably get even better as manufacturers see the economic benefits connected to environmentally conscious choices. If you do shop in a store, try to shop for used or local merchandise whenever possible and walk, take the bus or carpool when you do. Just for fun, check out Patagonia’s nifty site called the Footprint Chronicles which takes you through the steps involved in selling one garment, from design to production to storefront.