I ran across a short video recently from one of the on-line newsletters I read Grist’s Briefly – Stuff that matters. Although the article that introduced the video covered many things about how consumerism drives climate change, one item in particular stuck with me — on-line shopping’s carbon footprint.
A 2013 study by MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics resulted in some interesting data about on-line shopping. For example, two-day shipping may be free, but how costly is it to the planet? MIT’s research looked at the impact of on-line shopping by looking at three steps to making a purchase: research, purchase and return.
They found that driving from store to store to research the item you wish to buy and then finally purchasing it is actually less carbon efficient than going on-line to research and purchase the item. The results of the driving component, however, depend upon the density of the community and the type of transportation being used.
They also researched the function of returning an item, which research shows happens about 30 percent of the time. Here, too, there are many variables, but depending upon whether you walk, bus, bike or drive to the return location, returning an item may be free, but it is not carbon efficient.
OVERLOOKED CARBON FOOTPRINT
One thing that struck me when I watched the video was the omission of the carbon inefficiency caused by all the packing material used in shipping from the over-sized box to the air pillows or crumpled paper used for padding. There has to be a huge carbon footprint developed around these materials from the manufacture of the box, the air pillows and the crumpled paper to the delivery of these items to the warehouse to the transportation of these items to a recycle business or a local dump.
Although these same steps would be part of a local business’ wholesale purchase of the item, costs would be divided by the multiples of the item purchased thus reducing the carbon footprint at the local level.
If you’re going to buy on-line, bundle your purchases so they can be shipped together. Otherwise, plan to buy local. Research on-line, confirm availability via phone, bundle several purchases into one trip, take the most efficient transportation to pick up the item(s), and don’t return unless absolutely necessary. And above all, keep your “wouldn’t it be nice” feelings in check to stop impulse buying. Happy Christmas shopping!