Is Online Shopping Greener?

You know who you are.

You haven't bought a thing for any of your 27 adorable nieces and nephews, and you dread the throngs of wild-eyed parents stalking Toys "R" Us this time of year, their sweaty desperation sweetly underscored by the schmaltzy tunes of "Jingle Bell Rocks" and "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." You're in holiday shopping denial. And you'll probably end up loading up your credit cards with overnight delivery charges at the last minute, buying out the Web's entire stash of 5-foot-tall plush Harry Potter goblets of fire on the afternoon of Dec. 23.

Not so fast, e-commerce Santa.

Consider this: How would your adorable little nieces and nephews feel if they knew your shameless procrastination contributes to the destruction of the planet, sacrificing their priceless futures for a few moments of greedy joy on Christmas morning? Don't you realize that all those air-shipped "next day" deliveries are five times as fuel-inefficient as gifts sent by plodding trucks?

OK, so the little buggers probably couldn't care less. But do you?

Now that we're fully in the throes of the ritualistic consumer frenzy that is the holiday shopping season, probably the last thing on most Net shoppers' minds is what impact all that clicking to buy has on the environment. The truth is, even policymakers, social scientists, environmentalists and engineers don't really know for sure. Researchers are only now beginning to study what e-commerce means for the Earth. The first major conference on the topic, the Joint Symposium on E-commerce and the Environment, in October in New York, brought together 100 researchers from the likes of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Ford Motor Co. to compare notes on everything from e-commerce and energy consumption to land use.

"Everyone is just starting to wake up and realize that e-commerce might have environmental effects that we aren't aware of," says H. Scott Matthews, a researcher with the Green Design Initiative, a faculty and student research group at Carnegie Mellon University that is conducting one of the few major studies of the issue.

But no one knows exactly what those effects might be. "Anyone who tells you that they've got this figured out is probably exaggerating," says David Rejeski, a former researcher at the Environmental Protection Agency who is now at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton.

It's easy to imagine how good shopping online could be for the environment. After all, retail space with its hardwood floors, heating and cooling costs and huge parking lots can be a bigger drain on natural resources than warehouse space. And think of all the trips to the mall in the old gas-guzzling SUV that one efficient delivery truck speeding to and fro in a single neighborhood can eliminate. Plus, e-commerce cuts out entire steps in the distribution chain, presumably making the experience of buying online better for all. Click your way to a better world, baby!

But what such back-of-the-envelope analysis leaves out is the knotty vagaries of human behavior. We buy three shirts online only to ship back two that don't fit by air. We order virtually, but print out the receipts for our records. We buy five different books from Barnes & Noble online and have them sent in five different packages because we can't bother to wait for the total order to be filled. Wouldn't one trip to the bookstore have been more energy-efficient? And then there's the instant-gratification itch. It's the nagging impulse that says: "I want it now!" -- or, at the latest, tomorrow morning -- even if that means that an airplane will have to fly whatever it is to me from the other side of the country, so I won't have to bother to get off my couch.

Will shopping online bring new efficiency to our acquisitiveness or only give us one more way to clutter up the world with still more stuff? Should we be heartened by the news that the rate of growth in our energy consumption is slowing, or dismayed at how much easier it is than ever before to buy something we don't really need?

One early report on the issue, released last December by the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, a nonprofit that helps companies reduce greenhouse gas emissions, paints a rosy picture of a clean e-commerce future. "Christmas shoppers can minimize the environmental impact of gift giving by shopping online and shipping presents directly to the recipient," says Joe Romm, executive director of the center, citing the benefits of replacing car trips with delivery trucks and energy-intensive retail space with warehouses. The energy savings aren't hard to fathom. "If you're going to have the gift shipped anyway, it's got to be better to order it online." You save not only a trip to the mall but the extra environmental costs entailed in sending the product from a warehouse to a retail outlet and then to your friend or relative.

Romm's study found that even shipping two 5-pound packages overnight would result in 40 percent less energy consumption than a 20-mile round trip to the mall to fetch the same hefty gifts. So maybe we can all click our way to a cleaner, brighter future. It's these kinds of calculations that have led Jeff Bezos, founder of, to brag about the environmental benefits of e-commerce.

But other studies haven't been so bullish on online shopping as a green alternative to old-fashioned bricks and mortar. Researchers with Carnegie Mellon's Green Design Initiative scrutinized's proud pledge to deliver every pre-ordered copy of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" to eager readers via FedEx overnight on its July publication date. More than 250,000 books shot around the country in a dedicated fleet of more than 100 airplanes and 9,000 trucks, enabling the online bookstore to compete during the hyped release with the timeliness of a neighborhood bookstore. Just think of how many extra boxes it took to ship those books individually instead of in crates of 10 copies each to stores.

And while a truck efficiently delivering many packages to different homes may theoretically eliminate dozens of car trips, in reality that's not how most people shop. "The marginal effect of buying a book at the mall is small if, as part of the trip, other items are bought or other things are done," wrote the authors of "Harry Potter and the Ozone Layer," an article in the November IEEE Spectrum. Most important, air transit uses five times the fuel of trucking. Loath to draw any definitive conclusions on early research, they declared, "The net effect of e-commerce is unclear." But the basic question remains: Do we really need books overnight? Matthews says the Green Design Initiative has invited Bezos to a workshop on the topic of e-commerce and the environment in June, but, alas, "he hasn't responded to our requests yet."

Yet another study, this one by researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, found that buying a computer online was worse for the environment than purchasing one from a store, especially when overnight shipping was factored in. They found that only when a company also used the Web to streamline its inventory and distribution were there environmental benefits. Simply selling online wasn't enough to make a difference.

So what's a Net shopper to believe? "We're moving into the new economy and we don't know much about the environmental impact, and no one seems to care," says Rejeski, formerly with the EPA. Rejeski decries the absence of government funding for research on the topic: "It's ironic to me that the U.S., which has so quickly identified itself with the new economy, hasn't put up the money to identify the social and environmental impacts of the new economy."

One real wild card in the whole ecology vs. e-commerce equation is human behavior. "The big question mark is we don't know how people's shopping habits are going to be changed due to online shopping," says Nevin Cohen, a fellow at the Tellus Institute, which organized the October symposium.

"Will people just buy more and more things because it's even easier? And will people want it air-shipped overnight, and will they air-ship it back when they don't want it?" asks Alissa Gravits, executive director of Co-op America, a nonprofit environmental group. If e-commerce makes it so much easier for the "born to shop" masses to buy things, some ecologically minded critics worry the additional consumption could wipe out whatever incremental environmental benefit there may be to transactions done online. Josh Karliner, executive editor of Corporate Watch, a watchdog group, puts it this way: "The biggest environmental problem in the world today is American overconsumption. So if we're going to consume more and more resources by buying more superfluous goods over the Web, then e-commerce is only contributing to the biggest environmental problem in the world today."

Still, there are some macroeconomic energy consumption trends that are heartening. According to Romm, between 1992 and 1996 the demand for energy rose 2.3 percent a year, while from 1996 to 2000 the demand for energy rose only 1 percent; at the same time, gross domestic product increased.

"That's a very large drop," says Romm, a former acting assistant secretary of energy at the U.S. Department of Energy. "I think some of it is because the Internet allows a type of growth that doesn't require as much inventory and as much energy and as much transportation."

Even in the face of inconclusive research about the ecology of e-commerce, there's one fact that's crystal clear. Mainstream shopping sites could do more to help. E-commerce companies could painlessly offer a "green" shipping option. All it would take is marketing ground shipping as a way to help the environment, and letting consumers make the choice themselves. "I've suggested it to, and it isn't a priority for them," says Cohen. With e-commerce still struggling in its toddlerhood it would take an enlightened e-tailer, indeed, to fight the customer's urge for instant gratification. Who wants to point out how much slower your distribution is than a trip to the store?

Romm says the tightening of belts at many dot-coms may paradoxically benefit the environment. "I think that with the collapse of the NASDAQ and the dot-coms you're seeing a lot fewer companies offering free overnight [shipping] because it's too big of an expense." How's that medicine? Fewer freebies may ultimately be good for you!

And don't be so quick to blame the companies. There hasn't exactly been an outcry from concerned consumers demanding greener shipping options from e-commerce sites, or even an outcry from environmental groups, for that matter. "I think a lot of people are still in the honeymoon phase with e-commerce to think anything bad about it," says Matthews. "It's none of the companies' faults they're providing the service that customers want. If no one wanted it overnight, they wouldn't be selling it."

And environmental groups may also be in the throes of just such a honeymoon. Joel Makower, president of the Green Business Network, points out that many environmental groups are engaged in e-commerce partnerships with sites that market so-called green products. "I think the environmental groups have to look fairly carefully at their own e-commerce offerings before they can participate in any larger conversation about the environmental impact of the Internet. It's clear that the environmental community is fairly smitten with the technology, as an organizing tool and as a tool to sell 'green' things from T-shirts to toilet paper."

If there is one single message for environmentally conscious online shoppers, it's this: Don't wait until the last minute to do your Christmas shopping -- if not just to save your sanity, then to help save the energy sure to be consumed in all those "next day" FedEx and UPS orgies. "People need to know that all these little choices add up," says Rejeski. "Most people don't think about that, and most sites aren't telling people."

Sidebar: Six ways to shop greener online

Don't panic. You don't have to buy only locally made, hand-knit hemp smocks on the Net to make your online shopping have less of an impact on the planet. Here are a few simple things you can do to be environmentally friendly when you shop with your mouse. Visit Responsible Shopper for more tips.

1. Don't, don't, don't choose overnight delivery. Air shipping is a massive energy hog, generating five times the fuel emissions as shipping by truck. Choosing the slower ground-delivery option is probably the single biggest thing you can do to lessen the impact of shopping online.

2. Combine orders. Order three or five books or CDs at a time, instead of one. Wait until your order is complete to have it shipped to you. This cuts down on wasteful packaging and extra deliveries.

3. Send your orders to your workplace. If you work in an office, UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service are probably already stopping by, so this eliminates extra deliveries. It also cuts down on wasteful missed delivery attempts.

4. Buy less. Do you really need more stuff? Just because shopping online is convenient doesn't mean you should indulge. Some environmentalists fear that while shopping online may ultimately be more energy-efficient it will make shopping so easy and effortless that we'll all just buy more stuff, in which case there will be no overall environmental benefit.

5. Don't print out the e-mail receipts and order confirmations. Curb your addiction to hard copies. Just remember to back up your e-mail when you back up your computer files.

6. Recycle the boxes. Duh. Did we really have to tell you that?

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