Hi Umbra,

When it comes to holiday presents, does it really save energy and gas to order stuff online?

Rick G.
Manchester, N.H.

Dearest Rick,

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Holiday gift time, everyone! Many of you have already begun shopping, I know, and I also know that my birthday, coming in early December as it does, adds to the gifting pressure for everyone.

For better or worse, e-commerce has taken purchase.

I wrote last year about the hung jury on online shopping, and then Oak Ridge National Laboratory came out with a bit more information for the 2007 holiday season. To review my belabored, but still accurate, hedging: Driving alone to shop is worse than having a few items shipped. But having something flown overnight is stupid. And “e-commerce” is new enough that all the eco pros and cons are still under evaluation.

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ORNL, an arm of the Department of Energy, clarified the basics a bit further. They studied shopping patterns and related emissions, and their numbers were very clear. Thirty percent of holiday shopping was done online last year, and the result was equivalent to 63 percent of American workers staying home for a day. Nearly half a million metric tons of CO2 were avoided. In other words, we can feel good about the gas we save via online shopping. But!

While greenhouse gases are the most important consideration, they are not the only holiday pitfall. Throughout this holiday season, let’s all try to practice common ecological sense. Keep it together, people (especially Christmas-celebrating people). Don’t lose your cool in the upcoming frenzy.

How we shop is only one piece of the holiday puzzle. We need to plan ahead. Walk to shop if you can, or carpool. Don’t get caught driving around and around at packed shopping malls so you can look for something, anything to buy your loved one. When shopping online, don’t get into an Overnight Shipping situation, and remember to use conservation measures with your computer. (Turn it off when not using it, use the sleep function instead of a screen saver, and put all your computery accessories on a power strip, flipping that off at the end of the day.) While I’m preaching on holiday madness: Avoid crazy toxic vinyl decorations or anything disposable. Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!

In general, we need to be sensible gifters, steering clear of buying unnecessary, useless stuff. “Give experiences, not things,” as they say in my county. Or give wanted things. Or make things for people, if they’re open to it. Look at Grist’s list of stuff-free gift ideas and our gift guides (start here) — they are full of great ideas ranging from actual objects to ethereal concepts.

Best of luck for staying sane and low-impact during the upcoming preparations for SolstiQuaHaMas.