Online vs Offline: What is the greenest way to shop?

July 6, 2018

Online shopping has gone through the roof! Customers love to shop online and retailers are offering free and express delivery options to entice them to continue doing so. Great for customers and great for retailers! But we are all becoming more environmentally conscious. Customers are shopping at more sustainable brands and finding ways to reduce their carbon footprint everyday. So what about their shopping habits? We compare online shopping with traditional bricks and mortar to find out which is the greenest way to shop.

Is it a matter of behaviour?

Customers don’t generally conduct all their shopping online or all their shopping offline. So how can we find out what is the greenest way to shop? According to a study conducted by MIT there’s  basically three different shopper profiles –online, offline and ‘mixed channel’. Each profile has various ‘sub-profiles’:

1. The Cybernaut: a true online shopper

Let’s assume we have one shopper who conducts all of their shopping including the research online. The online shopper will have a carbon footprint of almost two times less than a shopper who conducts all of their shopping offline.

How did we come to this conclusion? Well, retailers have efficient transport processes – much more so than a customer traveling to a store by car. The study also looked into the environmental cost of running a physical store. As you can imagine it is significantly more than maintaining a webshop and warehouse.

The only area that the online shopper is less efficient in is packaging. It turns out all that bubble wrap adds up! Online shopping has a higher amount of packaging than offline shopping.

2. The Traditional Shopper: offline only

The customer that conducts all their shopping in a store has one of the highest carbon footprints according to MIT’s research. Transportation is the main cause of their emissions. This is especially true if they were to make multiple trips to the store to research the product before making the actual purchase. If they buy on an impulse the CO2 emission drops drastically, but it is still higher than that of pure online shoppers.

3. The Modern shopper: online and offline combined

Most customers will blur the lines of online and offline shopping regularly. Whether they are researching online and buying the item in store. Or grilling the sales assistant only to order the item via their smartphone from across the street. In this case the customer’s carbon footprint will include their cost of transport to get to and from the store in addition to the emissions caused by the retailer’s delivery method. All in all this causes the typical ‘mixed channel’ shoppers to come dangerously close to the true offline shopper in terms of Co2 emissions. If the Modern Shopper opts for Express Delivery (by plane), as is commonly offered in larger countries, they even top the list of polluters.

Is it a matter of location?

So far we have assumed that the offline shopper travels by car. But what if they live one kilometer from the store and walk there each time? In this case offline would be the greenest way to shop.

MIT’s study revealed that online is the more sustainable shopping method for customers living a long way from the store. When there is a larger distance customers are more likely to travel by car than carbon-efficient forms of transport. In urban areas the customer is more likely to travel by bus, tram, bike or foot. So in this situation offline could just be the greenest way to shop.

What about express delivery?

MIT’s research also revealed that the carbon footprint of the online shopper will increase and in some cases surpass the offline shopper if they opt for express delivery, mainly because it involves airplanes. Also, the more time-pressure that the retailer has the less they can calculate the most efficient way to deliver the item.

A big problem in e-commerce delivery is that vans are not properly utilised. If the retailer has more time they can ensure that the van is at capacity when it goes out for delivery. Calculating the most efficient delivery route, which clusters customers together can also save on emissions. This also avoids crisscrossing across town to keep to customer time slots.

Conclusion

Ultimately in most cases buying online is the greenest way to shop. However with express delivery becoming the norm and retailers under increasing time pressure to deliver items in a timely manner, usually efficient delivery processes can become less green.

Whether it is truly more sustainable to shop online or in a traditional store depends on the individual customer. Although with delivery processes evolving e-commerce can only become more sustainable.

This month we are talking about the sustainability of e-commerce delivery. Keep your eyes peeled for more sustainability related blog posts and join us for our webinar co-hosted by leading environmentally-friendly delivery carrier, Stuart:

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