Does shopping online cause pollution?

The concept was born last July, upon the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in J.K. Rowling's popular series. The accompanying book-buying frenzy -- crowds of hungry readers storming stores at midnight and millions of people placing orders in advance online -- raised a question.

"We started thinking about the idea of whether using overnight shipping was better or worse for the environment than going to the bookstore and buying it yourself," says H. Scott Matthews, research director of Carnegie Mellon's Green Design Initiative.

The researchers' theory is that the traditional distribution model is more efficient because books are shipped to stores in bulk in big boxes. With electronic commerce, on the other hand, the shipments are broken up and books are packaged in individual boxes to be transported by air and ground by couriers.

"Every time someone ordered a Harry Potter book, it was put in a little box and shipped overnight," Matthews says.

Which delivery is greener?

Their conclusions about which method is more environmentally sound, however, are not so neat. The answer, in short, is that it depends. It depends on how close buyers live to the nearest bookstore, and how far the product must be shipped if the buyer requests home delivery.

"Consumers aren't used to thinking about e-commerce having any environmental impact," Matthews says. "When people buy things online, they're not necessarily thinking about what's happening; it's almost like the item is being teleported from the warehouse to their doorstep. The fact that you aren't going to the bookstore doesn't mean there's no environmental impact. In some cases, it's much worse."

In other cases, though, e-commerce is environmentally better. The Green Design Initiative's study shows that having an online-ordered book shipped creates about 10 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than driving to a local store and buying it. (Ten pounds of gas emissions per book compared with 11 pounds when the buyer shops in brick-and-mortar outlets.) But that only holds true if the product is shipped less than 750 miles.

"If you need a book shipped from [across country], you know it's going to be worse," Matthews says.

Splitting the impact

Also, an e-commerce purchase is worse for the environment if you live fewer than 2 miles from a brick-and-mortar store.

"If you live close to the bookstore, it's better to drive there yourself," Matthews says. Better still, walk. Passenger car trips are notoriously high in greenhouse gas emissions, he notes.

The Green team's study also finds that books ordered online generate two and half times as much packaging material as books bought in stores. Manufacturing those materials is "not exactly a clean industry," Matthews says, and that's "one thing that concerns us."

While the Green team focused the study on books, Matthews says the same conclusions hold for other products, such as CDs. It's not necessarily the same with heavier items such as PCs, where there appears to be no significant difference between e-commerce and traditional buying methods.

Between the more substantial packing material of a shipped product ordered online and the environmental impact of motoring to a computer store, "it basically becomes a wash," he says.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Chris Yurko

PC World
Show Comments

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?