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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Is Shopping In A Store Greener Than Buying Online?

Air Date: Week of

The CambridgeSide Mall bustles with holiday shoppers. (Photo: Jaime Kaiser)

Some like to buy gifts amid the festive atmosphere of a mall around Christmastime, while others would prefer to buy gifts online. And this decision can impact not only our budgets but the planet as well, but is there a right answer? Living on Earth’s Jaime Kaiser reports.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

Tis the season to be ... an online consumer. More holiday shoppers are turning to Amazon and other internet retailers than ever before. But is buying those gifts online a good decision for the planet, or should you head out to a traditional store? Living on Earth’s Jaime Kaiser went to a Boston-area mall to see how consumers are making the choice.


KAISER: So, the other day I was at the mall doing some holiday shopping, when I found these really goofy socks that I knew my Dad would love. They seemed a little pricey, so I whipped out my phone to see if I could find a better deal. A quick Internet search showed that I could buy them online for five dollars less. Decisions like this one don’t just matter for our budgets or our time. Each purchase knocks the planet too.


So, in terms of climate change, which holiday gifts hit harder -- the ones we buy online, or those in-store purchases? I put this question to a group of mall-goers. It seemed many of them weren’t actually there to shop at all!

MAN: Taking the little guy to see Santa.

WOMAN: I come to the mall usually just to hang around, window shop most of the time.

MAN: I had to come into town for a doctor’s appointment, thought we would just come and wander around. I do my level best to avoid shopping malls anytime in the month of December.

KAISER: Even those who like malls said they prefer to shop online.

WOMAN: I shop online mostly, and I love to come to the malls during Christmas.

A growing number of consumers are opting to have all their holidays gifts shipped right to their front door. (Photo: Global Panorama, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

MAN: We have a baby now, so it’s a lot easier just to do it online as opposed to getting in the car, and then coming to the mall.

KAISER: But the prevailing assumption was that brick-and-mortar stores, were better for the planet.

WOMAN: I’m assuming that shopping here, in the malls, is better for the environment.

MAN: I’m staying with a friend right now and he had a huge shipment from Amazon yesterday, so I was just like, how much waste is there, boxes, and from ordering stuff online, like, I think it’s insane.

MAN: I would think it would probably be more environmentally friendly to go to a mall. Because if you’re ordering online and you’re ordering a half a dozen to a dozen gifts throughout the season, you’ve got trucks going back and forth.

KAISER: The answer? Well, it’s complicated.

If we just focus on carbon emissions, most major studies actually suggest that buying online results in a lower carbon footprint. Research at Carnegie Mellon's Green Design Institute found that if you only shop online, it could lead to a 35 percent reduction in energy consumption. Another study from the UK found that the average trip to the store to buy a non-food item results in 24 times more carbon dioxide emissions than ordering that product online.

But, there are caveats.

Buying in stores might ultimately be the more sustainable option for you, depending on all sorts of variables, like the distance you travel to get to the store, your mode of transportation, and how many other shoppers you’re with.

And, of course, none of this considers all those cardboard boxes for shipping online orders, or supporting local employment.

In the end, I decided to buy those socks from the store. I mean, I already had them in hand, so, why wait? And hey, I’d already burned the carbon to get there.

For Living On Earth, I’m Jaime Kaiser, at the Cambridgeside Mall in Cambridge Massachusetts.



Alternet: Which is better for the environment – Online shopping or going to the store?

An analysis of the carbon footprint from conventional shopping or online retail

The Carnegie Mellon Study


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