Online Shopping : The Climate Friendly Retail Option?

By Fi Bendall | 20 Oct 2010

There is much debate surrounding online shopping and its carbon footprint.

With the climate change convention, COP16, happening in Mexico towards the end of this year, it seems timely to look at the debate over online shopping and whether it helps our climate.

The case towards the end of 2009 was that it definitely does. In October 2009,  a report put together by Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University, made a strong case when comparing transportation, packaging, warehouse, data centre energy and so on.

Researchers used data provided by and the Internet Superstore, along with information from earlier research, to compare the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from delivering a flash drive from manufacturer to a home via the traditional retail and’s e-commerce channel.

The worst culprits in terms of energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions in that transaction were getting the customer to and from the physical store, packaging, and last-mile delivery on the ecommerce side of the equation. However the biggest issue was customer transport, which accounted for 65% of carbon emissions in the traditional transaction.

At the time, quoted from  ‘The Energy and Climate Change Impacts of Different Music Delivery Methods‘, a report which looked at energy and CO2 emissions associated with how we get our music – either delivery of an album of music in the traditional way or via the internet. While we can guess that in terms of materials and fuel for delivery of CDs to your house alone, online would be more efficient, the degree to which it is an improvement is surprising. Online purchases show savings of 40% and 80%. The report stated that “based on our assumptions, online delivery is clearly superior from an energy and CO2 perspective when compared to traditional CD 
distribution”. Treehugger concluded, “If you had any doubt, consider it washed away”.  

Roll on 12 months to October 2010 and our climate research conclusions have shifted dramatically in the other direction.

Working from Home and Online Shopping Can Increase Carbon Emissions, UK Report claims:

ScienceDaily (Sep. 22, 2010) — Shopping on the internet or working from home could be increasing carbon emissions rather than helping to reduce them, a new report claims. The research reveals that people who shop online must order more than 25 items otherwise the impact on the environment is likely to be worse than traditional shopping.

In addition to this, the report says if we work from home we increase our energy use by up to 30%!

The problem with both reports is that they are based on a set of assumptions that may not weigh up against all aspects of our lives and habits.

Looking at a few other elements associated with shopping, there is certainly room for more consideration:

  • Direct Mail;
  • Catalogues – according to Catalogue Central, each household receives 40kg of paper catalogues a year;
  • With regard to traveling to the shops, the eCommerce Report also states, “According to the Independent, “Each person makes an average of 219 shopping trips by car a year, travelling 1,220km each and emitting 136 grams of carbon per passenger per kilometre.”;
  • The energy used in vast shopping malls and the carbon footprint left by the sheer running of these outlets;
  • Most of us research online before we make an offline purchase;
  • What about how else we are using our computing time that affects our shopping habits – such as time spent on Facebook and Twitter, where we get recommendations that drive our purchases. You can read more about social network recommendations converting to purchase here.

I am of the conclusion that these various findings are synonymous with the general confusion caused by either side of climate debate. We have the ‘for’s and against’.  In addition, we have a blurring of clarity about whether research can categorically prove online shopping is green or not. This means e-retail marketers need to be careful around their green claims and ensure they are based on a comparable set of assumptions in the context of the consumer’s lifestyle and their online retail experience and processes.

All that aside, I was recently with a senior executive of a huge international media company, who said that when their well known chief executive was considering the yeses and the no’s in the climate debate, he was quoted as saying “what harm would it do to give the planet the benefit of the doubt?”

And that echoes my sentiments exactly.  We should all try to do out bit to reduce emissions and energy consumption – although I’m just not sure this will entail me ceasing to shop on my favourite online sites, like ASOS, Amazon, Gap, Top Shop, Shoes of Prey, Apple… and many more!

Fi Bendall, Director of  Digital Intelligence, can be contacted via Bendalls Group, where she is Managing Director.


7 thoughts on “Online Shopping : The Climate Friendly Retail Option?”

  1. Great article! There will always be arguments on both sides of the green debate, given the complexity and number of assumptions. You’ve helped raise awareness by sharing two opposing pieces of research to highlight this complexity. I know I still have a lot to learn about how to reduce my “ecological footprint” and your article has given me some intersting links to follow up on.

    Tony Hollingsworth

  2. I agree with Tony. It’s very easy to assume that online shopping is automatically the greener option. However, I just ordered one DVD on its own from the US and when I think about the processes involved in it being delivered to me in Melbourne, I’m suddenly not so sure.

  3. a great piece of balanced writing Fi – our footprint is not as simple as we sometimes think – thoughtful articulate intelligent informative

    @frombecca x

  4. Mark Freidin says:

    I am passionate about carbon neutrality, minimal carbon footprint, being green etc. The problem is not so much about physically driving to a store or ordering online, as both have their challenges in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the problem really lies with consumerism. People for example are encouraged to buy and drink bottled water (huge profit margins here), and recycle which has huge environmental consequences after the purchase. Imagine instead if these users chose a stainless steel bottle and used filtered tap water at home. Less carbon emmsiions (and profit to the retailer) For online retailers there needs to be more noise about sustainable online retailing… This is just the beginning. An Australian company is offering a service to offset carbon emissions at online checkout, a fantastic idea.

    1. Grant Arnott says:

      Nice comment Mark. Which company offers that service? I know the airlines do it, would be great to see that emerging within the online retail space.

  5. Hi all if you looking to go green, Temando offers the ability to offset the carbon for every delivery, making every delivery carbon neutral. This can be done for any carrier in the market and any mode of transport also. Offsets are purchased through Climate Friendly, who is both government accredited and the largest seller of offsets around. If you want to see a good example of this check out Anaconda’s new site which launched this week ( FYI our data shows that there is a positive influence on conversions, and it also opens up some green marketing opportunities also! 🙂

  6. I agree with Carl Hartman and tony.It’s very easy to assume that online shopping is automatically the greener option.

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