Online shopping – a greener choice.

(First published August 2008, updated November 2011)

I was thinking back to childhood and how whenever we were looking to purchase an appliance or similar, we would flit from store to store and mall to mall to find the best product at the best price – burning up gas and cranking out all sorts of nasty stuff from the car exhaust as we went. It was just what we did back then as we didn’t have a great deal of easy access to information on products – and gas was dirt cheap.

Back then though, we didn’t have to face getting maced, shot, stabbed or crushed at big sales either and issues relating to the environment simply weren’t on the radar for most of us. How times have changed.

These days all the products you need are just a click away. You can buy just about anything online – and that can be a good thing environmentally speaking.

When gas prices spiked a few years back, many major stores reported losses in their “bricks and mortar” outlets (their physical ones), yet their online sales blossomed. Consumers and the environment had a win from the situation.

I’ve been involved with ecommerce and online marketing for many years now, so I guess I’m somewhat biased – but I really believe that shopping online instead of via bricks and mortar stores is not only cheaper (and safer judging by some of the Black Friday sales incidents), but a more eco friendly option. That is assuming of course you buy what you need rather than all your heart desires; which can be a bit of a risk when shopping online.

Saving gas and emissions

For example, I remember just about running out of a natural arthritis treatment  that really worked in alleviating pain for Niki the Wonder Dog.

I could have jumped in my 1.6 ton car and made the special trip to the place that stocked the stuff I needed some miles away, but I found it on eBay – and it was $20 cheaper even with delivery! It was sent to my post box (which is checked regularly and is on the way to other frequently visited destinations). So I saved twenty bucks, time, gas, plus the associated emissions.

There has been so many instances over the last few years where I’ve needed something rather obscure that would have taken me ages and many miles of travel to obtain in the “real” world – instead, I just buy it all online.

The freight and packaging issue

Some would say that the shipping of goods directly to purchasers isn’t exactly environmentally friendly, and that’s true; but back to the example above, what would you think would be the most efficient and greener of these two options:

a) 1 person jumping into a 1.6 ton vehicle to make a special trip
b) Spending 2 hours negotiating public transport to get to a location 15 minutes drive away
c) A parcel weighing 2 pounds being added to a delivery truck that’s headed for the post office or to the general area anyway.

One downside of buying online can be extra packaging; but I have noticed that many eBay sellers and smaller online businesses send their goods out in boxes they’ve recycled, or more accurately, reused.

You may also be able to actually reduce shipping miles by purchasing online. For example, Product X at your supermarket may come from across the country or from the other side of the world. By searching online, you may find the same product being made closer to home at a comparable price.

Buying direct from warehouses

Bricks and mortar stores are usually incredibly energy and resource hungry – all the lighting, air conditioning and elaborate stands designed to catch your eye. When you shop online, often your order will often be fulfilled via a warehouse that doesn’t have all the glitzy gimmicks and fixtures.

Additionally, sometimes warehouses are bypassed altogether. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Green Design Institute found buying online from one of the USA’s major e-tailers resulted in 35 percent less energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions than the traditional retail model. This was due to the products being shipped directly from the online merchant’s distribution partners to customers; skipping first going to a warehouse and then the store before they get to the end consumer.

Greener products, more choices

While many supermarkets are now stocking more environmentally friendly lines, some products just don’t seem to be carried yet  – you can usually find these online. The world of online shopping also gives you wider access to smaller businesses run by very environmentally conscious people who are genuinely striving to make a difference – it’s great to support these folks rather than the shareholders of big-box stores all the time.

Product research

Even if you don’t like the idea of purchasing something sight unseen; the Internet can save you a great deal of time, money and resources by doing your initial research online. For example, looking to buy an energy efficient washing machine? You can read bundles of reviews posted online by people who have purchased the brands and models you’re interested in. The Internet helps you to make a more informed purchase decision on green products; rather than just relying on an in-store sales person’s knowledge.

Online shopping safety

I’ve been buying stuff online for so long, it’s second nature to me; but I do realize there are still quite a few people  very apprehensive about ecommerce; and it’s understandable given some of the stories you read in the press about credit card numbers being stolen and identity theft.

However, the sad fact is that even if you only use your credit card offline; your credit card numbers are in the systems of the stores where you use it and those systems are connected to the Internet – and more often than not that’s how hackers get the details.

Still, it does always pay to be cautious when shopping online – here are some quick tips:

– Don’t be dazzled by low prices; some sites are merely fronts and will grab your money and run. Check into the company, see what others have been saying about them. Look for a physical address and phone number.

– Check for a privacy policy so you know what the merchant will do with your details

– Read any terms of service carefully before proceeding with a transaction

– Using credit cards is actually one of the safest forms of payment as in most countries,  your liability for an unauthorized charge is limited to $50 – $100. If a merchant doesn’t deliver the goods, or the goods are defective or misrepresented, you can also issue a chargeback via your bank – and the chargeback process is heavily weighted in the consumer’s favor.

– Before providing your credit card details, ensure the page the form is on is SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) protected. SSL encrypts data during transmission, to thwart anyone from intercepting it. You can tell if a page has SSL protection as the web address of the checkout form page will start with https:// instead of http:// and check to see if a small locked padlock appears either at the bottom right of your web browser or in the address bar area.

– If you need to create an account with the online store, ensure you use a strong password; one with at least 8 characters and not a common word or name.

Online shopping is fun, there’s nothing like the thrill of hunting for (and finding) a bargain. While hyperconsumption is never a good thing, responsible shopping online can reduce the environmental impact of the goods you purchase.