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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.

Is Working at Home or Shopping Online Really the Most Eco Friendly Option?

A part of what I love about working at home is that it’s so eco friendly. I don’t have to drive to work. Most days I don’t drive anywhere, in fact. I use some electricity around the house, but I don’t think it’s all that much.

I also enjoy shopping online when it’s practical. I don’t do much of that, as most of the shopping I do in general is for groceries. I don’t buy a lot of things, and so I don’t often have something that I can buy online.

I found this press release claiming that it’s less eco friendly to work at home or shop online very interesting. Very much so counter intuitive, and I can’t say that I entirely agree with it, even though I don’t have numbers to back me up.

Some of the trouble is that it’s hard to tell where all of the data comes from. Are they considering all factors well enough?

From the press release:

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.

It also highlights that working from home can increase home energy use by as much as 30 per cent, and can lead to people moving further from the workplace, stretching urban sprawl and increasing pollution

A part of the challenge is that it doesn’t say how they’re assuming the shopping is done or how they’re calculating the carbon cost of the shipping. I hope the full report does that. It’s hard to calculate, especially when you consider that much of the carbon cost of getting a package shipped to your home would happen whether or not you bought something. That cargo plane is still going to fly, that delivery truck is very likely to go through your neighborhood to deliver a package to someone else. These aren’t things that can easily be accounted for.

On the other hand, if you’re using public transportation to go shopping, the same could be said of the carbon cost of that shopping trip. It’s near enough there either way.

The working at home bit can be really tricky. As I own my own business, of course it’s more eco friendly to run it from home. I don’t need an entirely separate office, and I don’t have any transportation costs. My computer and so forth are things I would own anyhow. I live where I do so that my husband can get to his job.

But if you’re working for someone else, there are more variables to consider. Do they have office space available for those who work part of the time at home and part at the office? Are all their workers spread out? Does this, as the report suggests, encourage them to live further from urban areas?

I have a sister who works for an entirely virtual company. They don’t have offices, and their employees are spread out across the United States. Are they more or less energy efficient than one that requires all their employees to work in offices? I know their costs are significantly less than companies that pay for office space. Is it more eco friendly? I don’t know.

The trouble with this kind of report is that the right answer is extremely variable. It depends on where you live, what you’re buying, and so forth. I don’t think there is one right answer, although anything that makes us rethink our assumptions isn’t an entirely bad thing.

How Do You Get Around the Poor Selection of Eco Friendly Products at the Store?

Some days it’s hard being green. You try and you try, but you just can’t find everything you need in an eco friendly variety. And too many products appear to be merely greenwashed, not really green at all.

Simply put, the selection of eco friendly, high quality products available locally sucks sometimes. It’s better than it used to be, but still not great in some areas.

But you aren’t as stuck as you think you are.

Make Your Own Cleaning Products

When it comes to things like cleaning products for around the house, you don’t need to figure out which brand to trust in a lot of cases. You can make your own.

In some areas this is incredibly easy. Just get the big size of baking soda and vinegar and you can do an amazing amount of cleaning around your house with just those two products.

You can find recipes online to make your own laundry detergent from products that are pretty easy to find locally. Be ready to experiment to find the ones that work best with the water you have in your area.

When you make your own cleaning products you don’t have to worry about the greenwash. You know what went into it. You’ll know if anything is even mildly toxic. You’ll know which products you can hand to the kids and make them do the work without worrying that they’ll taste it, no matter how young they are.

That’s the beauty of using things like baking soda and vinegar. No more locking cabinets due to dangerous chemicals. You can let the kids explore.

Shop Online

If you can’t find it locally, online is a pretty good choice too. You can find cleaning products that really are better for the environment. You can research the claims and find out which companies to believe and which are taking advantage of the lack of regulation on most green claims.

And you don’t even have to drive to get to the internet.

You can find eco friendly cosmetics that are also better for your skin. You can find organic or fair trade clothing and home decor items. You can find just about anything you might need.

Shopping online and having things shipped to your home can be more eco friendly than driving around to buy the items. The products have to be shipped to your area anyhow. Buying online means the delivery truck takes them to your door.

The disadvantage is that buying online means you aren’t supporting a local business. But especially for products that you might have bought from a big box store if you shopped locally, it’s not necessarily all bad.

You should of course shop locally for food. Local produce is one thing the internet can help you locate, but it probably can’t get it sent to your door.

Online shopping still requires a good bit of research to get it just right. But once you know what you’re doing it’s really not all that hard to find your way around the greenwash and to the products that really are kinder to the environment.

A Few Sites to Consider

EarthWaveLiving.com offers Modern Homesteading, Sustainable Living, Emergency Preparedness, and Much More…

Green Nest – More natural products for your home.

Only Natural Pet Store – Natural, holistic and organic supplies for your pets.

Greenbatteries – Offers great prices on rechargeable batteries, battery chargers, battery cases and holders.

ReusableBags.com – A critically acclaimed line of reusable shopping bags plus a growing family of smart, earth-friendly products all designed to help you reduce, reuse and save.