AskPablo: Online Shopping

shopping%20cart.jpgThis week Julio asks: “Is it more environmentally friendly to shop online or shop in-store? Or, is there a guideline I should use, since I shop online a lot?” I will try to offer my best answer and hopefully we will all learn something. I would like to remind the rest of you to please send in your sustainability-related questions or just topics that interest you. Just send me an e-mail at: Pablo.Paster(at)

So, Julio… You buy a lot of stuff online? And you’re worried about the environmental impact of your purchasing method? Luckily some work has already been done in that field. To begin let’s take a look back at AskPablo: Is Netflix Saving the World? where I wrote:
“The lesson in all of this is that mail order is more efficient than driving your personal vehicle (unless it’s a bike). Early attempts at mail-order groceries (Webvan) failed but I am confident that the concept will gain strength as fuel costs continue to rise. A study performed for the record label EMI by the Digital Europe Project compared the relative ecological impact of purchasing a CD at a store (which requires driving there), ordering it on-line (from Amazon for example), or downloading the music (iTunes) and came to a similar conclusion as this Netflix case. An even more efficient option is on-demand movies on cable, or movie downloading (which will gain popularity as bandwidth increases).”
To answer your question a little bit more I will examine the Digital Europe Project study results more closely. The EMI case study entitled “The Environmental and Social Impacts of Digital Music,” published in July 2003, was written by Vidhya Alakeson from Forum for the Future and Volker Türk from the Wuppertal Institute, who was my supervisor during my internship there. The case study uses the material intensity analysis tool that I have used in several previous columns, called “Material Intensity Per Service-unit” (MIPS). Vidhya and Volker concluded that digital distribution of music had the lowest material intensity. This makes sense because it dematerializes the entertainment service provided by music. When you go to a record store you are not buying the plastic case and disc, you are buying the music stored on it and the entertainment value associated with it. So why should you have to go to a store at all? And why should a plastic disk ever be manufactured?

The exact results of the study, in terms of abiotic (non-living, fossil or mineral based) material inputs, show that physical retail for one disk is responsible for 1.56 kg of material use. Online shopping (i.e. resulted in 1.31 kg of material use and online music delivery (i.e. iTunes) resulted in only 0.60 kg of abiotic material use.
The material use in the retail scenario included 0.77 kg for the CD production, 0.43 kg for the retail operation, and 0.28 kg for transport by the consumer.

The material use in the online retail scenario included 0.77 kg for the CD production, 0.14 kg for warehousing and distribution, and 0.25 kg for use of the computer and internet.

The material use in the download scenario included 0.46 kg for the use of the computer and internet.
A similar study was done by the Michael Kuhndt, Tim Aldrich, Justus von Geibler and the authors of the EMI case, again as part of the Digital Europe project, with Barclays PLC.  Similar studies have also concluded that online banking is less materials intensive than banking with an ATM or a bank teller.

My conclusion is that dematerializing services that were previously delivered through the purchase of a physical good (CD’s, books, movies, etc.) is less materials intensive. Additionally, delivery of purchased items in fully loaded semi trailers is much more efficient than driving to a store with an otherwise empty personal vehicle.
I have electronic copies of these case studies and they are no longer available for download online. If you are working on academic research in this area and would like to request a copy please send me an e-mail.
Pablo Päster, MBA
Sustainability Engineer