Online or in-store? Our guide to a greener shopping season.

Karin Rives

The holiday season is here and with that comes an annual headache: What will all the shopping do to my carbon footprint?

Should I order gifts online and have the delivery truck rumble through my neighborhood at least once – but more likely four or five times – before it’s all over? Or should I run the errands in my own car?

It all depends, says Ilissa Ocko, an Environmental Defense Fund climate change scientist.

“What you need to do is to take a close look at your own specific situation,” she says. “What car do you drive and how far do you have to drive to get to the stores? And if you shop online, what will you do with the time you saved by shopping online? If the answer is you’re catching a weekend flight to Cancun, then online shopping won’t help you much.”

But remember, your choices do matter, adds Jason Mathers, EDF’s senior manager for Corporate Partnerships, who last year wrote about a scientific study on shopping habits and carbon emissions.

“The climate impact on the shopping experience can nearly double, depending on how it’s done,” he says.

Here are Ilissa’s and Jason’s rules of thumb:

Go for online shopping if you:

  • live in an area with limited or no public transportation
  • have to drive at least five miles each way to go shopping
  • own an inefficient car
  • consolidate orders from vendors

Shop in-store if you:

  • usually walk, bike or take public transportation to shops
  • have a fuel-efficient car
  • consolidate shopping trips with other errands and activities
  • use reusable shopping bags

Holiday shopping matters

Holiday shopping is expected to rise 4.1 percent to $617 billion this year, and retailers are already pushing sales – a week before Thanksgiving.

As a general rule, online shopping will result in less carbon pollution because one delivery van filled with Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa gifts can replace hundreds of individual cars shuttling from one shopping center to the next.

Then again, online shopping generates two and a half times more packaging than goods bought in a store. Goods purchased online are also more likely to be returned, resulting in additional transport-related emissions.

Ilissa and Jason shop accordingly.

“I like to make one big trip to get most of my gift,” Jason says. “And I’ll shop online for items that I can’t easily get in town, trying to build in enough time for ground transportation over air.”

Ilissa, meanwhile, has all-but given up online shopping when buying gifts for friends and family. She’s a craft fair enthusiast and drives her hybrid car to local shows to get Hanukkah and Christmas presents for her interfaith family.

“This way,” she says, “I get almost all of my shopping done in just a few, quick energy-efficient car trips!”


Wow! Now I am more confused... Even if the tips are great, I am not sure what I should do.
I think I will do this year a bit of an effort and go shopping on foot to get all the presents for the family. I think it´s much more special, personal... and reduces carbon footprint.

Thanks for the great piece of advice!
I wish you all great shopping time :)

November 20, 2014 at 3:36 pm

Well, in my case, being a very busy person, I love to shop online. I also get more discounts from online stores than I do from offline stores. I go for shopping in-store only when I go out with my family, but I prefer online shopping these days.

Benito De Campo
November 24, 2014 at 11:17 am

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