Unboxing Your Carbon Impact: Online vs. In-Store Shopping

Marley Flueger
December 10, 2021

Joro’s Field Guide to Lighter Living: Part Four

As we emerge from COVID-19, we have an opportunity to build more sustainable lifestyles. That’s why we’ve created Joro’s Field Guide to Lighter Living, a climate miniseries unpacking meaningful tradeoffs to focus on post-pandemic.

Our collective shopping habits can shift what’s in-store (or online, rather) for the climate crisis.

If you’ve grown fond of DoorDash deliveries, filling up your InstaCart, or enjoying a little retail therapy in your pjs over the past few years – you’re not alone. E-commerce skyrocketed by more than 30% in 2020, fueled by COVID-19.  

Though the worst of the pandemic is behind us, it seems our new purchasing preferences are here to stay. This summer, we shopped online in even greater numbers than at the height of lockdown. And as the holidays roll around, nearly 90% of folks plan to do at least some seasonal spending online.

Collective habit changes often have consequences for the planet.
Fortunately, e-commerce tends to have a lower carbon footprint than in-store shopping. But it depends on how we shop, and it’s not a given.

Online vs. In-Store: Climate Benefits and Drawbacks

Neither online nor in-person shopping is always better than the other. It often comes down to something called the final mile – how a product makes it to your doorstep, and the carbon footprint it collects along the way.

With online purchases, a single delivery vehicle can replace dozens - even hundreds - of customers driving to shop in-store. By some estimates, traveling to the store to pick up a single item can generate up to 24 times more CO2 than having it delivered.

Physical stores often also require more energy to run than online stores with simple warehouses. Storefront lighting, heating and cooling, and employee commutes all add extra weight to a product’s carbon footprint.  

But e-commerce isn’t automatically eco-friendly
. Some of the biggest perks of online shopping – like next-day delivery – can be the least sustainable. And when we use online shopping to supplement in-store visits (rather than replacing them altogether) we often end up producing more emissions overall.

Countless variables impact the environmental footprints of online and in-person shopping. That’s why it’s important to build an intuition for the choices that matter most. Next time you shop, ask yourself these seven questions to make sustainable spending second nature.

Question 1: Do I really need this item?

  • Yes: Keep Reading
  • No: Skip Checkout (and Save Money!)

The best way to reduce your spending footprint is, simply, to shop less. As consumers, we directly influence 65% of global emissions; and one of the best ways to flex our collective power is to stop buying things we don’t need.

That’s not to say you should only spend money on essentials. Material items can bring us joy and enrich our lives. But shopping more intentionally can reduce your personal emissions and help reshape our society’s relationship to stuff.

When we keep the planet in mind, we shop less and save money
. In fact, the average Joro user saves $3,300 a year once downloading the app – just from buying less!

Question 2: How quickly do I need this item?

  • Right Away: Shop In-Person
  • No Rush: Consider Online

Next-day delivery is the easiest way to erode the emissions benefits of online shopping. Instead of optimizing their delivery routes, warehouses send vehicles carrying fewer items to the same location over multiple days to keep impatient customers happy. By waiting a few extra days, you can cut your delivery’s carbon footprint by up to 30%.

With global supply chains stressed to the max, some companies are going even further to keep up. Amazon, for instance, is spending $4 billion this quarter to deliver on time at all cost – even if it means flying inventory between warehouses and sending half-empty trucks out for delivery.

In general, by completing your entire purchase online and opting for standard delivery, you’ll generate fewer emissions than driving to the store. If you need a specific item last minute, do your best to walk, bike, or take public transportation to pick it up in person.

Question 3: How likely am I to return this item?

  • Likely: Shop In-Person
  • Not Likely: Consider Online

Customers return 25% of their online purchases, compared to 8% for in-store purchases. Returns double each product’s transportation miles and generate 5.8 billion pounds of inventory waste each year in the US alone.

While it might be convenient to buy the same shirt in different sizes and return the ones that don’t fit – it’s not a sustainable shopping habit. Before you buy, visualize not having a chance to return: would you still buy it?

If you aren’t positive you want the item or need to try it on for size, make a trip to the store when you’re already out running errands instead to reduce the risk of buyer’s remorse.

Question 4: Can I easily pick up in-person?

  • Yes: Consider In-Store
  • No: Consider Online

Most delivery fleets are still powered by fossil fuels. If you can complete your purchase while generating few emissions of your own, it’s often a greener option. For instance, you may visit a physical vendor along a route you drive regularly, like your daily commute. Even better, when you walk or bike to the store, you cut out “last-mile” emissions altogether.

But it can be difficult to do all your shopping close to home if you don’t live in a city. In that case, investigate where your online deliveries are coming from. “Brick & click” purchases (ones made online and delivered by a local, physical store) generate fewer emissions on average than both in-person purchases and those made from strictly online vendors.

As a rule of thumb, prioritize online retailers with physical locations nearby to cut road mileage. If you need to drive to the store, knock out multiple errands on a single trip to cut your overall emissions. (That’s called “trip-chaining.”)

Question 5: Can I consolidate this purchase?

  • Yes: Bundle Your Buys
  • No: Keep Reading

We tend to only buy a few items per purchase when we shop online. In contrast, we make more bulk buys when we take a trip to the store. (Putting on pants takes effort and we only want to do it once!)

Whether you’re shopping online or in-store, bundling everything you need in a single purchase reduces emissions substantially. Again, it comes down to the final mile: multiple trips, whether via your car or a delivery vehicle, adds up to a larger overall footprint.

To get the most out of the emissions you save by shopping online, make a rule you’ll add items to your cart throughout the month but only check out once monthly. Then, do your best to cut out trips to the physical store altogether. Studies show hybrid shopping habits rack up a larger carbon footprint than both online and in-person alone.

Question 6: Can I buy from a sustainable vendor?

Whether virtual or physical, your purchases support a business – and its business practices. Investigate the vendors you frequent: What’s their stance on sustainability? Are they known for exploiting vulnerable communities or the planet? How transparent are their business dealings?

If you’re not impressed, seek alternative vendors in your area or online. Even making a short car trip to an eco-friendly vendor sends an important message about the businesses you’re willing to support.

Question 7: How can I minimize packaging?

If you’ve determined shopping online is your best option, be aware these purchases generally use more packaging than products bought in-person. At checkout, choose plastic-free shipping and items packaged with lower-weight materials (aluminum cans or paper cartons are better than glass bottles!). And limit online purchases of perishable and refrigerated goods, which require ice packs or thermal wrapping.

Heading to the store? Don’t forget your reusable bag!

Offset Your Spending Footprint

Whether you shop online or in-store, Joro’s Net Zero Membership automatically offsets your monthly impact through a portfolio of high quality carbon removal projects. Explore our featured projects and go Net Zero today!

A climate action practice is the daily exercise of bringing awareness and intention to reduce the carbon emissions within your control.

Grow your practice with exclusive tips and advice.

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