Online shopping or local shopping – what's better for the environment?

Time and money are precious. When we shop, we want to save as much as possible of both. However, as environmentally-aware consumers we are increasingly assessing the amount of greenhouse gases  that are emitted when we buy shoes, books or household appliances. But what is actually more damaging for the environment – online shopping or shopping locally?

Around-the-clock opening hours, secure payment systems and consumer-friendly delivery times and exchange policies – online shopping makes it easy for customers with Internet access to order almost any conceivable product, ranging from tickets and music CDs to clothes and furniture, from the comfort of their own home in just a few mouse clicks. In Germany, almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of the population used the Internet for shopping in 2013. Even if this figure is just 45 percent across the whole of Europe, it's clear that online shopping has become increasingly popular in recent years. What's more, online traders extol Internet shopping as being more environmentally friendly than using conventional shops.

The environmental footprint in the shopping basket

At first sight, the arguments that online shopping is better for the environment are plausible. Whereas for example a clothes shop has to be air-conditioned and supplied with electricity all the year round, online customers can order their new coats from home. The goods are then delivered to the required address along with lots of other parcels, saving the customer a journey, possibly by car. The packaging material can be recycled, whereas any goods that remain unsold in shops have to be repackaged and stored.If we save money or time when we're shopping, we notice it immediately in our wallets or on our watches. However, CO2 emissions are not directly noticeable. What is certain is that the extent of emissions depends largely on our own shopping behaviour. If we order three pairs of shoes, for example, try them on at home and then choose one pair and send the other two back, we've increased threefold the emission of hazardous substances for the pair we've bought. In Germany alone, every third online order is returned. This amounts to more than 250 million return packages per year – in other words, a whole load of extra deliveries requiring equally high energy consumption to get them to their destination.

Do you prefer shopping locally or on the Internet? 

What's not shown on your online shopping receipt – the "feedback effect"

In the example with the three pairs of shoes, the negative effects of buying behaviour clearly overshadow the positive effects. This results in an unfavourable ecobalance. In their study on ‘Online shopping and home working’ (2010), scientists at the Institution of Engineering and Technology at Newcastle University  talk about  the ‘feedback effects’ of changing shopping habits. What is actually a positive incentive to reduce CO2 emissions – shopping online instead of driving to the shops – is cancelled out by the negative environmental impact of returned parcels.

When comparing online shopping with local shopping, these effects are often not taken into consideration. Since posting parcels also results in CO2 emissions, a reduction in greenhouse gases is only achieved if an online order replaces three and a half actual shopping trips by car, or if 25 products are delivered simultaneously or if the online purchase saves the customer a 50 kilometre journey.

Tips for environmentally aware online shopping

If you want to shop in a more environmentally friendly manner, you need to critically examine your own shopping habits. How much and what do I order online? A couple of tips to make the decision easier:

  • Ask yourself whether you might be able to get the product from a local shop instead – perhaps one you can reach on foot or by bicycle.
  • Buy from as few different traders as possible, and consolidate your orders.
  • Do not spread your purchases across several suppliers just to make small price savings.
  • Buy goods such as shoes, which have high return rates, in shops only.
  • Avoid missed deliveries by agreeing times in advance or specifying a neighbour who can accept the parcel for you.
  • Give preference to delivery services that use returnable crates or recyclable cardboard.
  • Set up buying groups to place collective orders.
  • Use standard delivery rather than express delivery so that parcels can be transported in optimally loaded lorries.

Factors that contribute to environmentally friendly online shopping include the type of packaging used for the products you order, and the load capacity of deliveries. So this is a challenge not only for customers but also for traders and delivery companies.

July 2014

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29 January 2020

I don’t like shopping and do it as little as possible. So when I do I want a personal experience where I can feel the fabric and try items on. There is also the social interaction. I do shop online over the holidays to avoid crowds and purchase difficult to find items.

Where are the people working that have lost their jobs from retail closures? The distribution centres are largely automated. Perhaps we should study possible economic fallouts from this as well, including increased spending/debt due ease of access?

19 December 2019

Sorry, I think shopping on line sucks. It's not easier either. I'm about to return my 3rd camera in 3 weeks, as you just can't find a good selection in stores anymore. When I last bought a camera about 8 years ago, I had plenty of choices. Electronics usually have to be returned in 2 weeks too. Very frustrating. I think a lot of retailers know you'll just keep it. Even so, online orders are returned 2x as much. I would never buy clothes on line. I need to see the fit, feel the material. Of course I'm built well, most large shirts fit fine. If your chubby, must really be a problem shopping on line.

1 April 2019

I vastly prefer shopping online. I'm somewhere between normal and plussize which makes shopping in actual stores extremely time-consuming and frustrating. Most shops still don't sell a very appealing plussize range while online stores are far ahead in the game. Where it would take me 3 afternoons of walking/driving from shop to shop it takes me about 1 hour to find something on Asos. All of their packaging is recyclable, they're very punctual with delivery times (so it avoids delivery services making multiple trips), it's cheaper and I never have to feel deflated and frustrated after another fruitless day on a shopping street. I don't shop too often either so in my case, I do think online shopping is more environmentally friendly.

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