For better or worse? How is the growing trend in online shopping impacting our environment? By Donnie Ryan

In June, 2016, the United States consumer hit a critical tipping point for the first time in their purchasing habits: 5,000 consumers surveyed reported making more purchases (51%) online than they transacted in traditional retail settings (Stevens, 2016). With sophisticated search engines, flexible ordering options, and high definition graphics, all facilitating instant access to thousands of resources worldwide, online shopping has never been easier and this trend is expected to continue. And, almost certainly, with big changes in consumer behaviors come big changes to our shared environment.graph

(Graph produced by: Thomas C. A. Müller, Co-Founder/CEO – Product Videos for Ecommerce, Jul 11, 2016)

For many, popping open their their latest purchase and pulling out more packaging than they would choose to stuff a queen-size bed, a pang of guilt can interfere with the joy of receiving the expected contents.  The good news is that studies on e-commerce versus traditional shopping hail the former as more environmentally sensitive, with some estimating a 35% reduction of emissions over consumers driving to acquire that same item (Carnegie Mellon, 2009).  Under normal circumstances, there are a number of reasons supporting this: the biggest has to do with personal car emissions per shopping item; the likelihood that more efficient fleets are used by commercial carriers; and the economies of scale that are achieved by carriers’ routes covering more homes more efficiently.  These factors couple with emission savings from customers browsing and revisiting items to finalize decisions from their homes.

So to accurately answer the question of how should you buy an item you really, really need, you must really use common sense.  Take a case where you are going to be at the store anyway and can add the item to your basket, or you are driving by that store on your way home from work, or you live three doors down from the retailer and you can walk or ride a bike there.  These scenarios make a case for shopping the old fashioned way because within them you are not adding to your carbon emissions.  In situations where you are going to be purchasing many items that can be bundled into one shipment, and you have to make a dedicated trip to make your purchase, then shopping online can be the more ideal method, even for purchasing groceries and other “fast moving consumer goods”, as one massive U.K. study shows (van Loon, Deketele, Dewaele, McKinnon, & Rutherford, 2015)

There are complicating factors in online shopping that reduce or reverse carbon savings and those involve deliveries that are unsuccessful or require numerous attempts, require returns or exchanges, and rush deliveries, most of which require air transport and use far more energy.  While a lot of these factors can help you make an individual decision on how to be a sensitive shopper, “reduce, reuse and recycle” still applies, prompting us all to consider how much we need to buy new, used or otherwise, and how fast do we need it.


Stevens, L., 2016.   Survey Shows Rapid Growth in Online Shopping.  Wall Street Journal   June 8, 2016

Retrieved January 13, 2017 from

Brown, J. & Guiffrida, A. (2014). Carbon emissions comparison of last mile delivery versus customer pickup. International Journal Of Logistics Research And Applications Vol. 17 , Iss. 6,2014.  Retrieved January 13, 2017, from

Anonymous, (2009).; Carnegie Mellon University; Carnegie Mellon University Study Finds Shopping Online Results in Less Environmental Impact.  Global Warming Focus; Atlanta (Mar 16, 2009): 24.  Retrieved January 20, 2017 from

van Loon, P., Deketele, L., Dewaele, J., McKinnon, A. and Rutherford. C. (2015).  A comparative analysis of carbon emissions from online retailing of fast moving consumer goods.  Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 106, 1 November 2015, Pages 478–486




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