Hi Umbra,

A friend and I were recently discussing a conundrum about purchasing products from companies that have physical retail outlets and online purchasing, like The Body Shop. Which is the most ecologically sound option? Local store: most likely drive there, the products had to be shipped there, your purchase probably generates a need to ship more products there … but you are supporting a local business that pays taxes, etc. Buy online, maybe your items are coming from the same place that ships to stores, so you are essentially cutting out the middle person, but it does take resources to get the product to your house. See what I’m getting at? Any input would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Pacific Grove, Calif.

Dearest Catherine,

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Please endure my obligatory gentle reminders to reduce consumption of unnecessary objects and bundle your errands when you do drive. Choosing the better way to shop is not better than not shopping.

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That said, the minds-that-be have not decided quite yet whether online shopping is better than in-person shopping. To the layperson, online seems to have a bit of an intuitive advantage — but intuition means little, as we have learned via the related paper vs. plastic situation.

You would barely credit all the variables involved in this one. Online “stores” have a major advantage in their — can one say — ecology of scale. They have fewer built and conditioned spaces. The online Body Shop, to use your example, is (we imagine) one large warehouse, whereas the in-person shop is many small stores, each with its own heating, cooling, lighting, and decorative bric-a-brac. But “which is better” gets trickier once an online item is ordered. In-person stores have a little ecology of scale in packaging and shipping, as (we imagine) if you order one unguent online it comes in its own package, whereas at the store you buy an unguent that shared its shipping package with its clones. And the e-item is a big packaging hog, causing two and a half times the impact of in-person items.

That’s the intuitive deal breaker, right? But wait: one of the groups that studied the issue found that a 40-mile car trip to buy something was worse, climate-wise, than shipping two five-pound packages by overnight mail.

I’m dizzy, dizzy with this pseudo-dilemma. So far we have underlined what we already kind of guessed: driving alone to a faraway place to buy very little is worse than having a few things shipped. My trips to the mall as a teen to buy a few cassettes (round trip: three hours) were worse than online shopping, and Netflix (reusable packaging!) is far better than my pater’s 30-mile drive to the video store. But what if we go with friends, or don’t drive so very far? How about if we take a bus? What about a few miles to buy a gift for someone else, which we then ship from the post office, versus online and par avion direct to the recipient? What if you turned off all your appliances and your heat and spent the day at the mall using their heat and toilets and sponge bathing in their sinks? Would that be better?

Even if local shopping isn’t always the best ecological choice, it might benefit your own other priorities. Your Body Shop example gives us a bit of trouble, since it’s a franchise. There is a local owner, and local employees, and local taxes, which all sounds good until we remember the same could be said of McDonald’s. What we want in “local” will need to be defined a little more tightly, and perhaps differently for each of us. Amazon is a local company to me (since I live in Seattle), and so is Starbucks. My friends work in those places, but this does not trump my personal preference for individual, in-person, small businesses in the living landscape of my city.

Hence, in sum: the jury is out. Follow your common sense until the jury comes back in. Don’t take long, single-occupancy, single-purpose car trips for lightweight consumer items. (I leave you an out for picking up a potter’s wheel or an anvil.) Avoid shipping by air — plan ahead and don’t be impatient when online shopping. And bundle shopping, shipping, and driving with others when possible.

Peppermint scrubly,