Which is better for the environment—staying out of your car, or staying away from cardboard boxes? You’d think that since I’m a retail broker for physical store locations, I’d be biased. But I’m firmly in the “it depends” camp, and that’s really what the current discussion about retail in developed countries revolves around anyway: How the retail landscape is evolving.
Let me be clear: This is not one of those posts aimed to make you feel guilty about your behavior. We’re just looking at some of the details about shopping to understand which habits have what kind of impact on our environment. You’re not single-handedly clear cutting the Amazonian rain forest by getting cardboard boxes shipped to your door, nor are you creating your own personal greenhouse by driving to the nearest power center. But there are things to consider when you do either.
“Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favor.”
— Robert Frost
Prevailing opinion used to be that the carbon footprint of the box you receive and the truck it came in were far less than you hopping into your SUV and driving to the well-lit, air-conditioned store, but as more online shopping occurs and more options for delivery became available, that may no longer be the case.
Studies Say …
Some of the most-quoted studies extolling the environmental virtues of online shopping are from 2009 and 2013. Internet shopping has exploded since then, the savings in fuel per-package notwithstanding. The other big change in the way we interpret the data today owes much to supply-chain specialists calling attention to the “feedback effect” of returned packages, now that you can get multiple impulse purchases shipped—and returned—for free.
Simon Property Group, one of the largest mall landlords in the US, just published a study that shows a 7 percent higher environmental impact when buying the same number of products online than going to the store, but it assumes that some shoppers are combining their shopping with other errands and are traveling in groups. Finally, the International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management published a study that cites buying one item online equates to the economic impact of buying 25 in-store, and Alumniportal Deutschland claims that a reduction in greenhouse gases only occurs if an online order replaces 3.5 car trips.
So, Who’s Right?
It’s likely that all of these studies are right—and also wrong—because (see above) ultimately the environmental impact depends on your actual shopping behavior. Be honest: Did you buy 15 things while you were browsing online with a glass of wine and return 14 of them two days later? Do you make a zillion trips to the store when you could probably—with a little planning—make half of those?
Leaner, Greener Shopping Habits to try
So, what’s a responsible, caring consumer to do? Eschew Amazon? Walk to the store with jute bags in hand? Try following these rules of thumb to make your shopping habits leaner and greener:
- Ask yourself if this is something you can pick up when you’re already going to be at the store. (And if you’re in a hurry, will it be convenient to do within the next week or so?)
- Consolidate your orders, both in frequency (wait to place an order until you have more than one item) and in shipment method (choose the “use fewest boxes” option).
- Buy from as few vendors as possible—or choose those who share a fulfillment partner.
- Use standard delivery if you can. Trucks can be loaded more efficiently and make fewer trips when it’s not a rush order.
- Make sure the delivery is a one-time deal—they can either leave it on the stoop or someone can sign for it.
- Buy shoes, swimsuits, and other hard-to-fit items in person. Or do what I do: Develop a keen sense for the brands that fit you perfectly every time.
- Go to the store if you have multiple items to purchase, and they can’t be bundled.
- If you have to return items, take the packages to a drop-off location that’s on the way to your home or work and re-use the box they came in.
- Recycle the packing materials once you’re satisfied with your purchase.
Bottom line: You can make a difference, but only if you try. The joy of shopping needn’t come with a side of environmental guilt!
Alex is a retail specialist working out of the Colliers office in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is a polymath, retired rollergirl and lover of interior design.