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

10 responses

  1. Totally agree with you in the case of electronic media delivery, but…
    What if I need to buy something tangible, like a shirt? There’s no way to avoid the physical production of the shirt. And then what if I combine my trip to the shirt store with several other errands all within walking distance of where I am going to park my car — so only one car trip, and say half a dozen different items purchased — versus ordering these half dozen things on-line which, due to the vagaries of on-line ordering and assorted shipping services, are more than likely to arrive in six separate deliveries…
    And then, if I am buying everything on-line, the shops in my little local town won’t have as much business, and if a significant number of people in the area start doing the same thing, then these little shops might go out of business, which would then force people to drive longer distances for things they don’t want to buy/can’t get on-line…
    I’m not really sure which side I’m on, just thought I’d throw some more variables into the mix…

  2. I’d say buying on-line is more eco-friendly. A delivery truck takes hundreds of packages and systematically drops them off on the most cost effective delivery route. Imagine if the hundreds of recipients independently drove to the shop to pick up there purchases.
    When it comes to supporting your local economy, nothing competes with biking to your local Mom & Paps shop, and stimulating the local economy. But if you are buying from a big corporation, on-line is better.
    I just came across a new shopping portal that offsets purchases with free carbon credits. They give away Phase II carbon credits (the good kind), paid for by advertising dollars from corporations. Kind of like the opposite to air miles. Looks like businesses are getting the right idea.
    Anyway, it is one way of making on-line more eco-friendly

  3. From the About Us page at GoCarbonFree:
    “GoCarbonFree is the UK’s latest and most up to date source of information on carbon offsetting.
    “Use our site to offset carbon and blah blah.”
    Blah blah? Yeah, that sounds like an up to date source of information…

  4. so,just how exactly can we be environmentally friendly while shopping on line?am really stumped here!
    jane doe
    RateTag – India’s World Class Online Shopping Mall – Experience the Magic. Buy Mobile Phones, Computers, Electronics, Gifts, Flowers, Apparel, Shoes, Toys, Video Games, Music, DVD, Software, Digital Cameras, Musical Instruments, Camcorders and thousands of other products.
    Online Shopping of Gifts to India

  5. Online shopping has reached a very high level , but I really prefer mall shoping because you can see the things with your eyes check them , feel them and it is a different sensation.

  6. I love navigating the internet, trying to buy some cheap stuff online. I even started to shop for my groceries online. I honestly think this is the greanest and most comfortable method for doing your shopping.
    Anyway, nice article! You did a terrific job!

  7. You also have to think about saving money when buying online. There are several companies now offering information about discounts, coupon codes, deals and other related stuff. For example I work with easysaver. Don’t know if you heard of it, but it helps me save over 1000$/month.

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