Climate-friendly giving at Christmas

Every year the special atmosphere of the pre-Christmas period draws crowds of people into the city centres and ensures that the shops do good business. However, many presents are also bought over the internet. Because some things are cheaper there and goods can be bought from anywhere at any time, buyers can save money, time and travel. But is online shopping also climate-friendly?

Factors in climate-friendly shopping

Shopping locally has undisputed advantages: going to a shop makes it easier to obtain advice and to find the right product. Fewer goods are returned – that saves travel, and if the travel is by car it also saves greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, it boosts the retail trade and thus enhances the attractiveness of local shopping areas.

Where internet trading is concerned, the compact storage of products has advantages in terms of energy consumption: storing goods in large warehouses usually uses less electricity and heating and is therefore more energy-efficient than storing goods in a shop where the strong display lighting alone can consume up to 40 watts for each square metre of sales space. Set against this, though, is the electricity used by home computers and the servers of internet retailers, which affects the energy footprint of online shopping.

The key issue: transport-related emissions

Having an item sent by post is often more climate-friendly than driving to the shop to buy it. Sending a parcel produces greenhouse gas emissions of about 600 grams (1,200 grams in the case of a return) – less than the 2,400 or so grams produced by the average six-kilometre shopping trip by car. But all too often the despatch of the product is not the end of the story. The shoes that have been ordered rub, the colour of the jumper looked quite different on the screen, the price/performance ratio does not come up to expectations: the item is returned, often in exchange for a replacement.

Parcel post: fewer journeys equals a better climate footprint

‘It is estimated in the sector that a large German mail-order shoe business, for example, has a return rate of up to 70 per cent. For the fashion sector as a whole the return rate is probably around 50 per cent. However, for electronic items the rates are probably significantly lower,’ says Moritz Mottschall, a researcher in the Institute’s Resources & Transport Division.

Furthermore, it is often not possible to deliver parcels direct if the recipient is not at home. If no neighbour is available to accept the parcel, the delivery company may make further attempts to deliver it, or it may be taken to a packstation or parcel shop from where the recipient collects it – frequently by car. Delivery direct to a collection point of this sort makes deliveries easier to plan and – depending on the delivery company – can reduce transport-related emissions by up to 30 per cent.

On the other hand, buyers can quickly improve the climate footprint of their local activities. Sharing an average shopping trip by car with two other people or travelling by public transport produces about 800 grams of CO2 emissions per person. Shopping on foot or by bicycle is even more climate-friendly.

Resource consumption in the mail-order business

A cardboard box used to despatch a fashion item weighs on average about half a kilo: this produces greenhouse gas emissions of around 350 grams. A lot of shops use boxes of a standard size, which means that their size bears no relation to their content. The smaller the contents, the more air is sent. To save materials and make the best use of transport vehicles, boxes need to match the size of their contents.

Another standard situation in online shopping is that if not all the products ordered are in stock at the same time, they are often despatched separately, thereby multiplying the emissions associated with packaging materials and transport. On the other hand, these despatch emissions also arise for shops, since they also receive large quantities of goods with packaging.

Research needed for a conclusive verdict

A number of questions still need to be answered before a conclusive verdict can be given on whether it is more environmentally friendly to shop online or locally. In particular, we need to know more about consumer behaviour: how do people shop and make decisions about what to buy? How do they travel on shopping trips? How many products do they buy on average? Do people drive less as a result of shopping online or do they use the journeys they have saved for other purposes? How are the new delivery companies influencing the transport system?

There are also questions to be answered about issues that are not purely environmental but are no less important: a growth in online shopping may further the decline of city centres as vibrant social spaces and squeeze out businesses, especially small- and medium-sized retailers. The easy availability of consumption may accelerate this trend. Despite society’s striving for constant economic growth, not all growth deserves our support. If more resources are procured from countries with questionable social structures, or work below the poverty line is encouraged, growth leads to greater social injustice and needs to be examined with a critical eye.

The Oeko-Institut therefore continues to explore these issues and provide information on completed projects and research work.