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

Karin Rives

Editor’s note: This post was updated on Nov. 19, 2018

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? Will it add carbon in some other way?”

But remember, your choices do matter, adds Jason Mathers, EDF’s Director of On-Road Vehicles, who wrote about a scientific study on shopping habits and carbon emissions a few years back.

“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 projected to rise 5.8 percent to top $1 trillion for the first time this year, and retailers are already pushing sales hard.

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!”

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