Is shopping local ‘greener’ than shopping online?

If I need a new coat or a pair of winter boots, I automatically default to ASOS. For anything else, I turn to Amazon and nine times out of ten, they deliver it the next day. Born right at the start of the ‘90s, the idea that people haven’t always shopped this way isn’t entirely strange to me. In fact, if I think back to my childhood, I can vividly remember holding onto my mum’s hand, walking down the high street as she hurried me from store to store. It must be alien to anyone born after me to think that less than 30 years ago, this was the only option and there was no such thing as ASOS or Amazon hiding in the ‘App store.’ Back then, it was still the norm to do your weekly shop in the supermarket rather than have the food delivered straight to your door. In an age where we are all in a rush to be somewhere yesterday, it’s a struggle to understand how anyone used to have all that extra time. But as convenient as online shopping may be, was the good-old fashioned way the greener option? The answer to that question isn’t as straight forward as you’d expect.

The delivery footprint and the ‘last mile’ 

Whether it’s a plastic toy that will never be recycled or a piece of furniture manufactured overseas, each individual product has a carbon footprint of its own and how much of that is attributed to delivery varies greatly. With 5.5% of global emissions attributed to transporting products via shop, air or road, it certainly has an impact. However, according to Alan McKinnon and Julia Edwards, authors of ‘Decarbonising Logistics,’ it is the final stage, or the ‘last mile’ of a products journey that matters most. Even despite all the logistical activities that preceded it, the delivery footprint is dominated by an items journey from warehouse or store to consumer – and if we compare the two, online shopping works out best.

The logistics   

Straight away, you can understand the verdict. Order online and the item is shipped to the consumer directly from the warehouse; purchase in store and the item has already been shipped from the warehouse plus the additional emissions caused by your journey to store. In fact, according to a 2010 study, a typical van-based home delivery round consists of 120 drops on a 50 mile round trip, meaning that despite the substantial 12,665g of CO2 that journey equates to, each individual drop off is responsible for just 181g. That pales in comparison to the 4,274g of CO2 attributed to the average 12.8km a consumer drives to get to the store. An in-store shopper would need to buy 24 items to justify the car journey, or eight items when travelling a typical 8.8-mile journey by bus.

Whilst the argument that online shopping is greener makes me feel a whole lot better about my own personal shopping habits, I’m not entirely sure I agree. When we delve deeper into the nature of home deliveries – and our own behavior – does in-store shopping have the edge?

Failed Deliveries and the ‘golden age of returns.’ 

Surely, we can all recall a time when we’ve ordered something for home delivery only to receive a ‘sorry I missed you note’ through the door. With 12% – 60% of home deliveries reported to fail first time round, how many more carbon intensive journeys are made when that product is redirected second (or third) time round? As much as we’d like to ease our environmental conscience by blaming the delivery service, consumers and retailers both have a role to play. In what has been dubbed ‘the golden age of free returns’ lenient policies have spoilt 21st century shoppers to such an extent that its impacted profitability, and just 11% of us have taken a step back due to environmental concerns. Without being able to ‘try before you buy’ online shopping naturally encourages returns but ill-fitting items aren’t the only things consumers are sending back. According to research this year, 41% of us over order items and send back the majority, and 29% of us order items we already intend to return. We’re also shopping in a hurry, preventing retailers from consolidating orders so we can get our products in the nick of time. Home deliveries may be far less carbon intensive for those living out in the sticks, but the argument is lost on those living in city centres and able to walk to the store.

The verdict: changing behaviour

Thankfully, efficiency isn’t the only thing shaping shopping behavior. Consumers are more conscious of their carbon footprint than they’ve ever been before and whilst that doesn’t always convert to action, it’s only a matter of time. Whether it translates to bringing a tote bag to the supermarket or deciding to ‘buy-well-but-buy-less,’ there is a growing consensus to do better – and expect better. Retailers like ZARA have already set carbon reduction targets for the future and given the increasing support from consumers for businesses that are socially and environmentally responsible, many more will follow suit. Return policies are already becoming more stringent to combat contradictory behaviour and the delivery footprint will decrease as petrol and diesel transport are replaced by greener alternatives in the years to come.

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