Q. Dear Umbra,
Is it more Earth-friendly to go shopping online or to get things in person? Which reduces your carbon footprint more?
— Dreaming About Winter Duties that Lower Emissions Radically
A. Dear DAWDLER,
First off, I’d like to say that it is completely fine to take one’s time to buy presents for Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Festivus or whichever holiday you’re last-minute shopping for this week. The holiday season is a social construct! If you give a Christmas present in March, it’s a surprise, and surprise presents are always better because the recipient was expecting nothing.
I understand that adherence to cultural norms, however arbitrary, dictates whether other people think you’re a jerk or a nice person. Some people may consider you a jerk if you wait until March to give them a Christmas present. I wouldn’t, but other people might!
But we’re here to talk about online shopping versus in-store shopping. The short answer to your question is that it’s all about economies of scale, baby. It’s technically more fuel-efficient to have one delivery truck carry a bunch of packages on a streamlined route to their respective destinations than to deliver the contents of those packages to various stores and then have each shopper drive alone to those stores to pick them up.
That’s assuming a lot of factors: that everyone is driving alone to go shopping, as opposed to taking public transit or biking or walking; that the efficiency of a delivery route isn’t thrown out of whack by a few guaranteed two-day deliveries (which are increasingly expected as the norm); and whether and how air freight has been incorporated into this whole process. We could even get into how the cars are powered versus how the trucks are powered — which are electric, for example? And where are those vehicles charged: in a place that depends on natural gas for electricity, or a place that depends on hydropower? And are we going to talk about those crazy UPS cargo e-bikes?
But what all these calculations and variables disregard is the culture that online shopping creates. It’s fostered a world in which you can see a picture of something you think you might like and buy it with about two clicks and not a second thought. It doesn’t matter at all whether or not you’ll like it — you have no idea! Buying things online can be so unconscious that you might not remember ordering it at all. You might be blackout drunk, scrolling through the clearance page of some swimwear website you’ll never hear of again. This results in the purchase of a lot of shit that would be super easy to never buy in the first place.
What happens to the thing when it gets to your house and you don’t like it, or you don’t remember it, or you just thought better of it? You can return it so that it goes through a whole other shipping journey and, in the end, may just end up in a landfill because it’s cheaper to throw away than to try to resell. Or it can sit under your bed until you find it months later, too late to return, and then it just takes a shorter trip to the landfill.
There are real human costs to this culture. This year, former Grist writer Justine Calma wrote about the impact that online retailers have on her home of San Bernardino County, California. The air pollution from the massive fleets of trucks carrying goods to and from warehouses in Southern California’s Inland Empire has been tied to infant mortality, cancers, and other public health disasters. And workers in Amazon’s warehouses, under the tyranny of guaranteed one- or two-day shipping, are subject to truly inhumane treatment for relatively little pay.
People buy stuff, of course. Everyone needs some stuff to live. But how many of the purchases that contribute to a baby’s low birth weight, or a warehouse employee’s urinary tract infection, are truly necessary? How many of them could have very easily never been made at all? Or simply picked up at a store on the way home from work?
All this said, I received an email from a reader last month that asked me to consider the situation of people living in rural areas or small towns that have lost department stores or smaller retailers due to capitalist forces, whose only option to buy many things is Amazon and other online retailers. Walking or biking to a local store to buy what they need is simply not on the menu. Of course! This is a reality for many millions of people! The best way to limit the footprint of your shopping in that case, I’d say, is to opt out of express delivery whenever possible. And, of course, to avoid drunk or impulse shopping.
If you want to undertake the climate calculus of any life decision, it’s really weighing the potential value of something you’re doing against the potential cost. When it comes to online vs. in-person shopping, I think that the most important behavior change is to be more conscious about what we’re shopping for, period. If you’re talking about gifts, don’t panic and get some random bullshit trinket shipped overnight to your brother’s house just so you can say you got him a gift on time for Christmas. (If you need any inspiration for some non-bullshit gifts, let me refer you back to the list I made a couple of weeks ago.)
And, just maybe, consider this potential plank for your climate platform: No more present-centered holidays! Surprise presents only!