On the weekend after Thanksgiving, Andrew Whitman, Manomet’s director of sustainable economies, sent his colleagues an email intended to help them navigate the environmental impact of holiday season shopping, namely the differences between the carbon footprint of retail versus online shopping. To ship or not to ship?

It’s a question many people have in this busiest of shopping seasons, especially as the number of days to Christmas ticks down and taking another trip to the mall loses all appeal. The simple answer – maybe too simple – is, you can ship, but slowly.

Whitman drew on several different studies to frame his recommendations to his colleagues at the nonprofit, which has an office in Brunswick and promotes paths to sustainability. These included an environmental analysis of online shopping produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2013, and another from the University of California’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative that spelled out the environmental price of shipping.

Online shopping is way up and contributing to a vast increase in deliveries – the U.S. Postal Service delivered 3.1 billion packages in 2010 and 5.2 billion in 2016. But researchers say online shopping, despite the environmental cost of those deliveries, is no worse than “regular” retail shopping and may, under ideal conditions, actually have a smaller carbon footprint, even half the size.

But the answer is complicated by multiple factors, including the methods the shopper uses to receive the package (overnight delivery brings that carbon footprint level with schlepping to the mall in your gas-consuming car) and the social and economic impacts of choosing online retailers over brick-and-mortar businesses in one’s community.

There doesn’t seem to be study (yet) that looks at that broader picture, so Source asked local sustainability experts to weigh in on the topic, and unsurprisingly, they had a lot to say.

COSTS OF AIR DELIVERY

But first, the basics of the studies.

Express or two-day delivery typically puts you in the category of flying a package at least part of the way to you, a bad place to be if you’re trying to decrease your impact on the planet. It’s about fuel costs, Whitman said.

“Air is notoriously much worse,” Whitman said. “It just takes a lot of energy to stay up there in the air and less energy to roll something along the ground.” The delivery companies, from United Parcel Service to Federal Express to the U.S. Postal Service, are all set up to traverse our highways and streets with maximum efficiency, or as MIT puts it “an optimized delivery process.” Their motivation might be monetary, but it has a payoff in the other kind of green.

“They don’t just draw up a list and connect the dots,” Whitman said. “They use algorithms to figure out what is the best way to pick up and drop off.”

The upcharges for shipping you pay for overnight or two-day delivery are likely almost entirely related to fuel, Whitman said. “You can almost think of it as commensurate to paying the fuel costs to get the item quicker.”

For instance, M. Sanjayan, a scientist who heads Conservation International, found in his research for the University of California’s Climate Lab that UPS uses techniques like truck platooning (sending multiple trucks out in a row) to reduce drag and save between 10 and 20 percent in fuel costs.

The massive delivery company also uses algorithms to coordinate around traffic signals so trucks spend less time idling (and gas guzzling) at intersections. UPS alone has seen its holiday season deliveries increase by 260 million packages since 2010, Sanjayan says in a video produced with Vox media for the Climate Lab.

The MIT study, which came out in 2013, broke shoppers down into seven categories, ranging from a “traditional shopper,” who takes multiple trips to stores, to an impatient “cybernaut” who shops online, asks for air delivery and then makes returns online as well. The study factored in the speed of delivery, the energy consumption used in both warehouses and retail shops and the amount of energy it took to both get shoppers to stores and allow them to use their computers. The cybernaut who skipped air delivery in favor of the slower truck had a carbon footprint almost two times smaller than the traditional shopper, the study found.

But the so-called “modern shopper,” impatient and prone to visiting stores, figuring out what they want and then ordering online with an express delivery request, was the worst offender. A Pew Research Center poll from 2016 found that 65 percent of Americans say they compare the store price with the online price and pick the cheaper option. (Bookstore owners dread this person for browsing their selections, then brazenly ordering from Amazon right in front of the sales clerk.) This kind of modern shopper had a higher carbon footprint than the traditional shopper who relies completely on bricks and mortar.

Their numbers have likely only gone up since the 2013 MIT study, which used 2011 figures of the percentage of online sales from total retail sales in the United States (4.7 percent) and predicted that online shopping might grow to 10 percent of all sales by 2017. That number seems quaint from an actual 2017 perspective; that same Pew Research Center poll from 2016 found that 8 in 10 Americans shop online, and a 2016 poll from an analytics firm called comScore said shoppers now make 51 percent of their purchases online.

NOT SO PRETTY PACKAGE

The MIT study found that packaging was the biggest component of the cybernaut’s carbon footprint, and for Matt Prindiville, the Maine-based executive director of national environmental organization Upstream Policy, that’s the area that is most important to focus on.

“I do think that online retailing is here to stay,” Prindiville said. “It is a losing battle to try to combat that.”

Holiday shopping might be on our minds right now, but he points to the rise in online food deliveries, through meal kit services like Blue Apron, or even online delivery services that bring fine dining to your door.

“If we are going to reduce the online shopper’s impact, we need to reduce packaging period,” Prindiville said. “Amazon actually has a lot of power over their vendors. They can reduce product packaging and require that it be no bigger than the product.”

Or maybe not packaged at all. “You don’t need a yoga mat to show up in a box,” he said.

Another key way to reduce your online shopping carbon footprint is to request bundling, that is, that multiple items in an order be packaged together, rather than sent as each becomes available. Big vendors such as Amazon make that request part of the check-out process.

The game changer though, Prindiville says, is “really reusable packaging,” made of natural materials – technology for packaging made from mushrooms is making great advances, he notes – and he suggests that companies like the ones that sell meal kits should charge a deposit on the materials. “So people don’t throw it away,” Prindiville suggested. “Just a small deposit to show people that this has value.”

NARROW QUESTIONS, NARROW MINDED

For Michael Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Portland, the MIT study asked an overly narrow question, namely whether online shopping is more climate-friendly than shopping at a store. “Maybe yes in rural Maine,” he said in an email. “If you don’t insist on fast delivery or return the product.”

But he and others agree that it’s the wrong question to ask. Consumer shopping behavior is a factor, Belliveau said, but not the major factor in reducing the overall carbon footprint of consumer products.

Take the example of buying a laptop, he said, which the MIT researchers used as one of the products to track (others were a T-shirt and a Barbie doll). The laptop itself has a damaging impact on the environment, and it would be better to put energy into less fossil carbon-intensive materials and better energy efficiencies in manufacturing, Belliveau said. “Whether you buy the laptop online or at a retail store hardly matters.”

Belliveau would also prefer shoppers think more specifically about where they buy than merely the broad categories of online or in a store. He co-authored an annual retailer report card released last month that gave Amazon a D for (minimal) efforts to eliminate toxic chemicals in the products it sells – another way to take a toll on the environment. Belliveau gave traditional brick and mortar retailers much higher grades, including a B+ for Target and an A- for Walmart.

Glen Brand, the chapter director for Sierra Club in Maine, pointed out another area where the MIT researchers could have delved deeper, or considered different aspects of how the traditional and/or modern shopper works.

“The assumption is that you are driving a gas-powered car,” Brand said. The more people drive electric vehicles, the less their shopping carbon footprint would be. Not everyone can afford (or wants) an electric vehicle, but, Brand said, “If everybody had an EV, that is going to help, but not solve the problem.”

When Brand does his shopping, he does as much of it as he can in person and by foot. He’s got the advantage of living in an urban setting (Portland). “But I can’t walk everywhere for everything, even living in the most urban part of Maine.” When he has to drive, he tries to combine errands into one trip.

WALKING AND TALKING

Like the majority of Americans, 64 percent according to that same Pew Research Center study, Brand prefers to buy from physical stores than online. Even if the trend is toward online, people like to touch things and have social interactions around them. And that’s the last strike against this study that the Mainers we called brought up: it doesn’t take into consideration the economic and social benefits of downtowns and bricks and mortar shopping.

“There is a reason why people shop in downtown Portland,” Brand said. “Because they enjoy being around people, and they want to look at the lights and walk.”

And talk, Whitman said. “When I go into the Gulf of Maine bookstore (in Brunswick), I say maybe 40 words at most,” Whitman said. “I wouldn’t say it has huge ambiance. But there is always some chatter, often with the owners and customers. You are not going to get that in a chat box in Amazon.”

So while he appreciates the science behind the MIT study, he says he is still trying to figure out the economic and social piece of bricks and mortar versus online.

“Part of it is my own values,” Whitman said. “It may not be the most efficient way to buy. But it is still something I want to do.”

Anne Ball works with downtown communities throughout Maine as part of Main Street Maine, a program of the Maine Development Foundation, and she would argue that retail shopping has its own efficiencies. She cites research from the Institute for Social Reliance, whereby consumers find what they are looking for more quickly if they have help from a retail worker. Then there is a ripple effect, Ball said.

“The consumer benefits and connects with their community, which is really important,” Ball said. It helps build a sense of place. “It means bumping into friends. It means playing in the toy store. Just human interaction, which is important socially and economically.”

“If you aren’t supporting these businesses, you lose all that,” she added.

That said, Ball said, with online sales here to stay, bricks and mortar businesses are likelier to succeed if they’re shipping out the back door while selling out the front.

“We had a good model,” Brand said, referring to the tightly clustered shops of true downtowns. “We screwed it up. It is clear to everyone that if you shop online only, then it fundamentally weakens and deteriorates downtowns.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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