Carnegie Mellon University’s Green Design Institute's recent study has a sentence that reads “e-commerce had about 30% lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions compared to traditional retail” — which got Traveling the Green Way to announce that Online Shopping More Eco-Friendly. Connie Wu at Your Daily Thread took that title at face value, citing that post to declare that Online shopping is more eco-friendly than shopping at a traditional retail store — then to recommend a whole bunch of e-tailers.
Trouble is, neither Traveling the Green Way nor Connie seem to have read the study in any detail. The Green Design Institute’s study itself, in fact, makes no such grand, sweeping pronouncement about how e-tailing eco-triumphs over local retail shopping.
First of all, GDI’s study title — “Life Cycle Comparison of Traditional Retail and E-commerce Logistics for Electronic Products: A Case Study of buy.com” — shows the study’s much more limited than either of those bloggers make it out to be. The words “Case Study of buy.com” and “for Electronic Products” make it clear that the results of the study can’t be applied to all e-commerce — despite the fact that Traveling the Green Way has no problem extrapolating it to cover travel equipment, and Connie eco-fashions.
And in fact, the study itself’s full of disclaimers. “There was significant uncertainty and variability in many of the numbers used in the analysis,” acknowledges the study near the beginning, then repeats the disclaimer that “substantial uncertainty exists in many of the parameters of the model and significant variability exists” near the end.
Why so many disclaimers? It seems the biggest wildcard in the carbon footprint of shopping is how people get to retail stores: “Customer transport in the retail system is the most important parameter to the overall results, being similar in scale to the overall emissions related to the e-commerce system.”
The study had to use the best average shopping trip it could come up with — which ended up being a 7.5 mile roundtrip in a car that gets 22.5 mpg to pick up just a couple items. That’s certainly a lot farther than I’m willing to drive to pick up a flash drive (that’s the shopping product used for the study) — especially in L.A. traffic!
The study also used ground shipping for its e-commerce calculations. Had the study used air shipping, the results would’ve been quite different: “there is a higher probability (around 50%) of the retail system having less CO2 emissions,” according to the study.
Considering all that, “Online Shopping More Eco-Friendly” is definitely NOT the conclusion I derive from this study.
Instead, the lessons I derive from the study are these: When shopping locally, try to walk, bike, or take public transportation — or if you must drive, carpool, combine trips as much as possible and don’t drive too far. When shopping online, get ground shipping.
Sandy Bauers, a blogger for The Philadelphia Inquirer’s GreenSpace who clearly DID read the study before writing about it, comes to the same conclusion: “So [shopping e-tail] isn’t an ironclad dictum. I view it more as information to factor in, measuring my circumstances against their statistical average.” And Umbra at Grist made the same recommendations about 2 years ago.
I do shop online for some things, but not for items that are available in biking distance. There are many many reasons for shopping locally whenever possible, from promoting walkable, unique neighborhoods to supporting local economies to making friends with your neighbors to increasing community engagement and decreasing social isolation.
Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not green because you too seek those things in your town.