There is much debate about whether shopping online is truly greener than in-store shopping, anecdotal evidence aside, the research suggests that it is the greener option. Each year online buying has been growing steadily and the data suggests that this reduces the carbon footprint of the annual buying frenzy.
However, there are some important caveats. Determining whether it is better to buy online or go to a retail outlet depends on a number of variables including the delivery company that will transport your purchases. By and large, the faster it is shipped the bigger the footprint and the further your purchases travel the larger the footprint.
According to an MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics study, online shoppers have a carbon footprint almost two times smaller than traditional shoppers, who make multiple visits to a store to evaluate, purchase and return items.
A Heriot Watt, Green Logistics study (pdf) corroborates the MIT research. It also indicates that online shopping offers benefits over shopping at brick and mortar stores.
The notion that having purchases delivered is better for the environment than driving to the store is also born out in other research. A 2013 University of Washington study found that using a grocery delivery service can cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least half compared to individual household trips to the store. If companies deliver based on routes that cluster customers together, they can reduce CO2 emissions by 80 to 90 percent compared to customers driving themselves.
The environmental merits of shopping online particularly apply to those that live in an area with limited or no public transportation, have to drive at least five miles each way to go shopping, or own an inefficient car.
There is less environmental benefit to shopping online if you walk, bike or take public transportation to get to stores. There is also less environmental benefit to shopping online if you have a zero emission car and consolidate shopping trips with other errands and activities.
Online shopping may also cause people to buy less, which is the most environmentally responsible strategy to reduce emissions. Research evidence suggests that online shoppers buy less as they are less prone to impulse buys than in-store shoppers. A 2013 survey found that shoppers are actually less likely to make sudden impulse purchases when they shop online compared to traditional in-store shopping.
Despite the benefits of online shopping there is a downside. It generates two and a half times more packaging than goods bought in a store.