Feb 14, 2009

Science Scene: Online vs. Mall Shopping

When it comes to the way we procure the goods we use in our lives, there are some mixed messages out there. Buying local is advertised as a green way to go -- and it can be -- but so is acquiring stuff with minimal shipping and transportation. Shopping online is fast, convenient, and your stuff comes right to your door -- no car trips required; shopping in local brick 'n mortar stores supports your community, and may not require much (or any) driving either. So, which is the greener way to shop? The case is explained below, or scroll to the bottom for a summary.

Shopping online vs. malls or stores: The variables

The answer, as with many such equations, depends largely on the variables, and one option doesn't win outright over another. We'll ponder the energy required to do both, and a few variables that change with every purchase, like packaging, and a few that are tough to put a number value on, like the relative value of supporting a local Mom & Pop Shop down the block. With that in mind, and, as always, considering that the greenest purchase is the one you've already made, let's begin.

The case for online shopping

This really comes down to scale. All products have to be shipped from the warehouse where they're stored after manufacture, and it can be quite a bit greener to cut the retail store -- and all the building, lighting, cooling, heating, and so forth that the store requires -- out of the equation. According to the Center for Energy & Climate Solutions, shipping two 20 pound packages by overnight air -- the most energy-intensive delivery mode -- still uses 40 percent less fuel than driving 20 miles round-trip to the mall or store or wherever you're going; ground shipping -- which is much more efficient than overnight air -- checks in at just one-tenth the energy used driving yourself.

How does that work? While your car is likely to get more miles per gallon than the truck that's likely shipping your stuff (truck freight accounts for about 2/3 of U.S. domestic shipping), your car only has you (and maybe a passenger), while the truck can be hauling up to about 30 tons of cargo (that's a fully-loaded truck at the legal limit for gross vehicle weight). So you, your buddy, your car, and your 40 pounds of package (on the way home) burn about one gallon of gasoline in those 20 miles.

Shipped 1,000 miles in a truck, your package accounts for about 0.1 gallon, and if you choose to ship by air freight, that number hops to 0.6 gallons; it's all thanks to the hundreds of other packages that are presumably along for the ride. And, even though your online order doesn't go from warehouse to your front door in the same loaded truck or airplane, companies likeFedEx and UPS are working to upgrade the efficiency of their routes and fleets, since faster, more-efficient service saves them money.

The case for shopping in stores

This comes down to real-world details. It'd be great if everything could be as efficient as the numbers above bear, but there's more to the process than just shipping. Shopping online results in 2.5 times more packaging than shopping in stores, so having many separate packages shipped can really add up. New Yorkers, for example, left more than 8,300 tons of cardboard and mixed paper to be recycled in the first full collection week after Christmas 2005, a 21 percent increase over the previous year. While all that can be recycled, it takes energy and infrastructure to do so.

Plus, every trip you make to the store isn't 20 miles round-trip, and every mile you don't drive to the store cuts back on the energy required to retrieve your stuff. If you live in a dense urban area, or have access to reliable public transportation, then a portion (or just about all, if you're walking) of your transportation energy is negated, and can tip the scale toward the brick 'n mortars.

A few other options to consider buying from retail stores include: Goods made locally; stuff that you are more likely to return (like clothes) if you can't try it on first; and, supporting stores who are owned and operated by locals, pay local taxes, and make where you live a more interesting and vibrant place. It's tough to put a price tag, environmentally or otherwise, on the social aspect, but it's important to consider.

Green shopping: and the winner is...

...different depending on what your priorities are, and how you do it.

Shopping online is better: If you live in the suburbs, or are surrounded be Mega-Marts, have to drive more than six or eight miles each way to go shopping, are scrupulous about bundling online orders, choose ground shipping rather than overnight air, and are more concerned about fossil fuel use than packaging waste/recycling.

Shopping in-store is better: If you can get what you need at a location that shows up on within walking distance
, can ride your bike (or take the bus or subway) to your store of choice, or are buying goods made locally, you're better off trundling down to the Stop 'n Shop.


  1. Personally, I also factor in an extreme dislike, if not hatred, of going to the mall. I'm a veteran online shopper. :)

  2. Sorry about it ... but I prefer the tactile 'feel' of actually shopping in person. Besides, I really think that the online thing, is yet another part of the diabolical plan of the beast to put his mark on each and every one of us!!

  3. Our local mall seems geared to the young crowd and only offers clothing stores now. I think there is one camera store, and of course the food court. I never find anything I need at the mall. Most of the stuff I need I find the best deals online. Otherwise, I'm having to drive around to several stores looking for the deal. So, time and money wise shopping online has been a benefit for me. I like checking prices at more than one location. I also look for free shipping or I bundle as much as I can.

    Happy Valentine's Day to you and your wife!


  4. I have read these wild stats & surveys that say some people are on the computer for 20 hours a day, dead tired, addicted to some game or room.....Hell, if that is case, get off the computer, go to the Shop Rite or Lord & Taylor and do some shopping, interact with some real people. I think it may be a social necessity in some situations. I also think, based upon the folks I know who shop online for most of their things, they tend more frequently to buy things that don't "look right" after they get them or that don't fit, don't do as was said; some of these friends do not return the things. Those that do return, then you have all that extra shipping & buying another item as well....all is very wasteful.

    If I bought clothes or certain other things online, I know I'd have a lot of wasteful returns, but in truth a mall is the DEVIL to me, so I do try to stay out of there.

    I'm all over with this. Sorry. I am answering questions while the coffee is brewing. I should have waited!~Mary

    ps I do have one pet peeve. I've noticed extremely healthy people in a complex with 10-12 stores get in their car & drive 3 parking lines down & repark. Can you walk from Pottery Barn to Victoria Secret? I think you can.

  5. Ken I do most of my shopping on line as I live quite away from the nearest store ~ too far to walk ~ but I do enjoy a trip to the Supermarket at least once a week ~ I love to pick and choose what I want to buy ~

    Happy Valentines day to you and Both ~ Ally x

  6. Hi Ken,
    I think it all depends. I hate going to malls but it really does depend on the purchase. There are still some things you really should check out in person before you buy.

  7. What does online shopping save? My sanity!! Like so many of the other folks who have commented here, I HATE malls, and I can proudly say I haven't been in one for at least 10 years. On the other hand, I love to support small-scale local stores and markets, and do so whenever I can, fully realizing they'll be more expensive than chains. It's worth the extra expense to me. That being said, I also buy a lot online, I'm afraid. As for gas savings, I use so much gas just going back and forth to work (160 mi. round trip) that a trip to a local store is merely a drop in the bucket. :-(

  8. I do and have done almost all of my shopping online. I hate shopping in brick & mortar stores and I hate going to malls even more. Being around all the people and touching things they've touched puts me in hyper freak out mode!

    I recycle most of the boxes by giving them to my cats in the cat house to play with - they love them and usually destroy them in a short time so I don't have much left. We all win with that.

    We ship out alot of items so I reuse the packing items.

    And lastly, being that we live so far from stores it saves me from having to travel and use energy and pollute the air.

    Great entry Ken and definately food for thought.


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