Is Online Shopping an Eco Friendly Choice?

Is Online Shopping an Eco Friendly Choice?

Online shopping is hugely popular. Not only is it often easier than going out the the store, you get an amazing selection and generally good prices. The big question is whether or not it’s the most eco friendly choice.

Online Shopping Disadvantages

There are certainly times when it’s frustrating to look at the packaging your purchases may arrive in. I recently ordered new windshield wipers online – every time I was at a store that sold them, I forgot about them. Remembering to order them online was much easier.

The packaging, however, was absurd. I ordered 3 wipers – two front and one rear. The rear windshield wiper arrived in a nice, narrow box, well sized to it.

The front wipers, however, arrived in a huge box. Now I had ordered some school uniforms for my kids at the same time, so I assumed that all came together, hence the large box. Nope. The box was just a bit longer than the wiper boxes were, 20 inches wide and a foot tall. The cardboard was also double thickness. Absurd to say the least.

Most packages also come with some plastic padding of one sort or another, whether it’s pop bead style or the pillow type. Sometimes one sort or another of styrofoam is used.

There’s an interesting chart on the Stanford Magazine website that gets into energy use for retail versus e-commerce pathways. In most ways, e-commerce does really well, but in packaging and last mile delivery, it uses more energy than retail. But when all the factors are put together, on average e-commerce comes out more efficient. That drive most people take to the store to buy things ruins the energy efficiency of retail.

While not necessarily an eco issue, I loathe doing online returns. Come to think of it, I hate doing them in person too, but sending a package back is generally an inconvenience that I find somewhat more difficult than doing a return when I go back to a store for some other reason as well.

Online Shopping Advantages

So just what are those advantages for online shopping, aside from the personal ones?

Saving gas is a huge part of it. Most people drive to the store, and that’s really inefficient from an environmental standpoint. This is why combining errands is so important. Most people don’t often walk, ride a bike or even take public transportation to go shopping – driving yourself is so much easier, especially if the store is more than a mile or two away or you’re buying groceries or other things that get heavy fast.

The other side of this comes from looking at how deliveries get to your home. Yes, that last mile delivery uses a fair amount of energy. However, delivery trucks are generally far more efficient than individuals driving to the store. Delivery companies plan their routes to be more efficient – that saves them a lot of money on fuel. Companies such as UPS have learned to avoid left turns, for example, when possible, as that has proven to be more efficient.

It’s not all about saving gas, of course. It’s also more efficient having your purchases come from the warehouse than from a store. Stores have to do more to look attractive. Warehouses can be laid out for efficiency.

Product research is one of my favorite advantages. You don’t have to take your best guess – you can see what other people think of a product you’re shopping for. You can find the most eco friendly options for what you need with relative ease. Salespeople can tell you a certain amount in person, but nothing beats the personal experience of many other buyers.

In general, online shopping is very safe so long as your computer is safe. A virus on your computer can compromise its safety – so can falling for a phishing email that tricks you into visiting a copy of a site and sharing your information with the wrong people. But so long as you are careful, keep your computer free of malware and don’t click on phishing emails, you’re pretty safe online.

The one other risk of shopping online is when you go away from the major websites. It can be more difficult to know who to trust when you go away from the big sites such as Amazon and eBay. You should always check an unfamiliar company out before buying from them online. Read their terms of service. Check out online reviews of them – with a grain of salt as online reviews can be faked. Make sure their checkout process is secure.

That said, there are risks to shopping in retail stores too. Just look at the widely publicized hacks of Target, Michaels and Home Depot. There are credit card skimmers that can steal your card information without you knowing it. Your credit card information it at risk whether you use them online or not – be wise about how you use them online and it won’t be any bigger of a deal than using them in person. Most credit card companies will easily reverse unauthorized charges, making them a good choice for online purchases.

One reply

  1. I do very little shopping and I sold my car to be more ‘green’ so I have to plan my purchases carefully. Most of my purchases are food and personal care products. I rarely eat food from a box or can and I buy food at farmers markets as often as possible. However, when living in a high rise, I used Peapod, where you can order fresh food online and get it delivered. This was a huge help and they usually delivered to several people in the same building. I also sell personal care products online because I got so frustrated trying to find non-toxic, organic and fair trade products in eco-friendly packaging… even at ‘health’ food stores! Check it out:

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