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Is Having Everything Shipped to Me Worse for the Environment Than Buying It In-Store?

Once you factor in one-day shipping, gas prices and plastic packaging — well, it’s complicated

My preference is to avoid going out in public as much as possible. Getting dressed, getting in the car, driving to the store, finding parking, locating a shopping cart, figuring out which aisle the toilet paper is in, choosing the toilet paper, awkwardly almost bumping into someone with your cart, waiting in line to check out, receiving some cheeky comment from the cashier about your toilet paper choice, remembering where you parked your car, bringing your shopping cart to that little shopping cart purgatory, getting back in your car and driving back home — it’s all, technically, unnecessary. Just make some Amazon employee deliver your toilet paper directly to your house! 

All the energy you save and the gas you don’t use has to count for something, right? Surely, one person driving around to deliver objects to myself and my neighbors must be better for the planet than all of us individually driving to the store, right? 

Hmmmmmmm… kinda, sorta. Maybe. Sometimes. 

As you can imagine, answering that question is complicated. There are a ton of different factors involved, like where the product is manufactured, where the nearest shipping warehouse is located, how far you live from the store and how soon you need the product. 

Factoring all these different things in, a 2013 report from MIT figured out that, assuming you live in an urban area, online shopping has a slightly smaller carbon footprint than shopping in-store. For “traditional shoppers,” or those who travel to stores to make purchases, the majority of the environmental cost comes from the gas required to get there. For online shoppers, the majority of the environmental cost comes from the packaging. 

However, this changes according to a number of variables. If you’re the plan-ahead type and order your toilet paper well before you need it, you’re going to have a smaller carbon footprint than someone who needs that toilet paper delivered to their home within the next 24 hours. This “impatient” consumer, as the report damningly labels them, has a higher carbon footprint than the traditional shopper because while the shipping process may get the object to you faster, the means are less efficient and often require air transport. 

Wanna say “fuck the Earth” and be as bad for the planet as possible? Go to the store, pick which toilet paper you want to purchase, then go home and have it delivered there with the fastest possible shipping. Oh, and then drive to the physical version of the store again to return it. And while that might sound absurd, it’s actually how many of us shop: Perhaps it’s not our method for something as mundane as toilet paper, but it’s not uncommon for people to see something they like in stores, then later end up purchasing it online. This type of person is what the study labeled as the “Modern Shopper,” with the gotta-have-it-now version being the “Modern Impulsive Shopper.” 

All of this, though, was analyzed under the assumption that shoppers are only purchasing one item. If making one trip to the store allows you to purchase multiple items on your list, the environmental investment of driving to the store pays off. Meanwhile, if each item you purchase online arrives separately in individual packages, the other benefits of online shopping are diluted. 

Now, if going to the store to make your purchases is your game, no biggie — you’re not the reason the world is burning. Ditto if you’re into ordering your goods online. A better thing to think about is just buying less, period. And if you do order online, try to be strategic about timing your purchases so they can all arrive in one shipment. That way, you’re not left with a ton of plastic envelopes which usually can’t be recycled with traditional recycling. I probably also don’t need to explain the ethical implications of shopping on Amazon since we’re all guilty of it, but, y’know, it’s not great. It’s not like buying in person at Walmart is really any better, but just something to consider. 

Look, life is a nightmare, and I’m not gonna tell you exactly how to live it. Just use that noggin of yours, do what ya gotta do and maybe don’t have your shampoo expedited to you in 24 hours.