The Green Side of Online Shopping

E-commerce reduces the environmental impact of shopping by using about a third less energy than traditional retail–but only if you skip the express airmail.

A study out Tuesday by the Carnegie Mellon Green Design Institute offers a scientifically rigorous estimate of e-commerce’s green benefits. E-commerce not only uses less energy, but its carbon footprint is also a third smaller than bricks-and-mortar retail, the scientists found.

Lead researcher H. Scott Matthews and his team compared the energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions required to deliver a small flash drive to a shopper via a trip to a traditional store versus buying and shipping the flash drive via Buy.com.

Coming up with these calculations required many assumptions by the scientists–but they’re a lot more informed than past attempts to account for the environmental benefits of e-commerce, say the researchers. That’s because the e-commerce site Buy.com made available to them information about its data center, last mile delivery practices and other sources of energy consumption. (Buy.com is a member of the Green Design Institute’s Corporate Consortium, but didn’t pay for or direct the study.)

The scientists found that by far the largest environmental cost of traditional shopping is a consumer driving his or her own car to a store. (They assumed that the average person drives about 14 miles round-trip per shopping outing, and buys about three different items on one trip.)

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