Hey Mr. Green,
I live in a rural area and have always ordered a variety of stuff over the Internet. Online shopping is great because there are so many more choices, but what's the carbon footprint for delivery to my house versus driving to a store and buying what they have in stock?
--Janet in Sagle, Idaho
The internet's environmental benefits are sometimes vastly overrated, as are many aspects of telecommunication — the latest exaggeration being the notion that political protest can't do without cell phones and the internet, as though nobody ever managed a rebellion without Twitter.
But back to shopping: Because there are so many factors involved, it's complicated to compare online shopping with conventional shopping. For example, shipping individual items bought online requires much more packaging than shipping bulk items for resale in brick-and-mortar stores. And though considerable amounts of energy are consumed delivering packages to individual residences, it also takes a lot to heat and cool stores.
The biggest factor, though, as you must know from bitter experience, is the amount of gas you burn driving to a store. This does make online shopping greener — overall, it takes about 30% less energy than does conventional shopping. However, as a recent Carnegie Mellon University study reminds us, there's significant uncertainty and variability in calculating the carbon footprint of your shopping trip, depending on what you drive, how far you go, and so on.
Because 65% of the energy used in conventional retailing is consumed moving the shopper to and from the store, buying from an old-fashioned, in-town operation can actually be as environmentally efficient as buying online — but only if you heed Mr. Green's endless harping about walking, bicycling, taking mass transit, and carpooling.