America is the country where “shop ‘til you drop” is the national mantra, and yet we rarely consider it when talking about energy use. There’s personal driving and freight transportation and that’s about it.

But Laura Schewel, a longtime activist for electric cars at the Rocky Mountain Institute and elsewhere, proposes a third category —Retail Goods Movement (RGM), or basically shopping. It's basically the American obsession, isn't it? Memorial Day travelers, many headed to the big mall sales, will be spending $1.4 billion on gasoline, reports the Union of Concerned Scientists. (If they were driving fuel-efficient cars instead of big SUVs, they'd save $619 million, but that's another story.)

“RGM energy use is increasing faster even than aviation energy use,” she says — 400 percent since 1969, compared to just 70 percent for the flight sector. According to Schewel, currently a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, driving to shop takes up 45 percent of all miles driven in the U.S. The shrinking percentage of driving for the daily commute constitutes 2.2 percent of total American energy use; shopping is 6.6 percent of all miles. Schewel’s findings are detailed in a report written with Lee Schipper, “Shop ‘Till We Drop: A Historical and Policy Analysis of Retail Goods Movement in the U.S.” Schewel just won a prize for that work at the International Transport Forum in Germany.  

Schewel talked to me via Skype from Leipzig, where she was accepting her award. "It was shocking to me when I first saw the data," she said. "You can debate whether it's 35 or 45 percent. And it represents a real shift in how Americans spend their days." She noted that the numbers would be much worse — 30 to 40 percent worse — if federal fuel economy standards hadn't demanded more efficient cars and trucks. "This trend didn't happen because we like to be in our cars a lot," she said. "There were many different reasons."

overturned shopping cart

The factors in adding to shopping miles since 1969 are simple enough: increased population, greater distance to malls and other meccas (with fewer stores per capita), greater frequency of shopping trips, and longer-distance goods shipping (which figures in the huge percentage of goods made in Asia). Believe it or not, some of this is connected to people consuming fresh food (up 27 percent, compared to just 2 percent for preserved food) — that means more frequent deliveries, and more frequent trips to buy produce. With more women in the workplace, we’re also shopping on Sundays, and simply consuming more stuff than people did 40 years ago.

Schewel thinks that online shopping can offset some of these miles, though that’s not much of a factor now. Peapod, anyone? Policy makers could also encourage people to take transit to shopping destinations, but considering how heavily laden many shoppers are, that may be a non-starter. Shifting shopping-related goods from trucks to trains would also help.

More neighborhood stores would be useful for cutting some of that energy use. The authors note helpfully, “Policy to support more small, local grocery stores may be more successful if presented in a framework of increasing residential property values nearby or in the context of reducing obesity in poorer communities.”

Old movies show British and French shoppers with quaint baskets on the back of their bicycles (a baguette poking out in the French example). Those people even got exercise when they shopped without any expenditure of energy. Ah, those were the days.

By the way, Schewel has a new start-up, Streetlight Data, designed to deliver this kind of analytic information to the retail community. And here's a cool animated video about shopping malls and their parking lots:

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