Sore feet, aching back, and lightened wallet—this is the plight of the weary shopper. Even online shoppers experience some degree of exhaustion—sore mousing-fingers and strained eyes. But whether a shopper uses home delivery or frequents a bricks-and-mortar retail location, they're also contributing to exhausted natural resources and the growing climate change problem. Choosing the most earth-friendly option can be tricky.
With the exception of products manufactured and sold from the same location, all products must be shipped somehow from the producer to the seller. It's estimated that most food products, including such foodstuffs as produce, meat, seafood, wine, and beer, travel an average of 1,500 miles by long-haul diesel trucks before reaching the kitchen table. Many perishable products such as flowers and produce must travel in special cooled (read fuel-intensive) containers to consumers' homes, adding to the already hefty eco-travel bill.
Rail, truck, sea, and air transport all produce CO2 pollution. Truck transport is perhaps the most common method of transport within the US. Diesel exhaust contains over 450 chemicals, 40 of them believed to be toxic to humans and detrimental to the environment. Carbon monoxide from vehicle emissions accounts for 56 percent of total carbon emissions nationwide and, along with nitrogen oxide, contributes to air pollution.
With some products traveling upwards of 2,500 miles, including miles contributed by consumers going to and from the point of purchase, local shopping can bring significant eco-benefits by reducing the amount of travel by consumers.
Unfortunately, not every store is within walking or biking distance. Getting to certain stores may require longer-distance travel making them less eco-friendly to frequent. Shoppers browsing online from home can cut the CO2 emissions associated with a single-occupancy trip to the store—every minute spent Internet surfing uses 20 times less energy than a minute spent driving to the mall. Fewer cars on the roads means less congestion, which ultimately leads to reduced transportation-related energy emissions. And although delivery trucks produce more smog-generating fumes than small cars, if they’re packed to the gills with multiple orders going to closely-linked locations, they can theoretically eliminate dozens of individual car trips. Not a surprise since ground shipping uses only one-tenth the energy of an average private vehicle trip to the mall. Worst case scenario: an online order ships overnight via air transport. Although this method is far less efficient than ground transport, it still requires only 40 percent of the fuel used by the average individual headed for the local shopping district.
Constructing retail structures and warehouses requires energy, materials, and land. In-person, in-store visits look like this: consumers browsing up and down wide aisles through beautifully displayed products on relatively sparsely-occupied shelves or racks, surrounded by comfy couches, artful wall-hangings, and sample-toting salespeople. The temperature is comfortable, lighting bright, and music seductive.
Warehousing for online stores requires significantly less of everything. E-commerce typically cuts the amount of commercial building space needed by 5 percent. This may not seem like a huge percentage, but in terms of square footage, that’s equivalent to 450 Sears Towers, saving 40 million tons of construction-related greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention the power needed to keep building lights on. Although warehouse buildings must be heated and air conditioned, it requires only about one-sixteenth the energy of conventional retailers.
The total potential energy savings from reduced operational and maintenance needs of warehouses compared to retail vendors could equal the output of 21 power plants, or 67 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Additional material savings include lower spoilage, reduced paper consumption (conceivably fewer catalogs, direct mail, etc. would be printed), and less chance of overproduction (due to inaccurate sales projections).
When a product no longer tickles a consumer’s fancy, where does it go? In 2006, over 251 million tons of garbage were produced in the US. Of that, 32.5 percent is recycled or composted, 12.5 percent is burned at combustion facilities, and the 55 percent leftover is tossed into landfills. Each American resident generates approximately 4.6 pounds of garbage every day; more solid waste than the residents of any other country. Canadians generate the next largest amount of waste, about 3.75 pounds each per day, whereas Germany and Sweden produce less than 2 pounds per day per person, the least of all the industrialized nations.
Recycling turns an object that would otherwise need to be disposed of into a usable resource. Recycling is a more sustainable way of dealing with solid waste than incineration or putting it in a landfill, but it has drawbacks. For example, recycling still requires the energy and other resources necessary to collect, transport, sort, and process the recyclable waste. However, recycling saves some of the energy and other resources required to create new materials like paper or glass, and helps to minimize harmful practices like strip mining and clear cutting.
Since some materials like aluminum can be recycled locally over and over indefinitely, the costs of transporting raw materials long distances for manufacturing can be reduced or eliminated as well. Recycling even plays a role in reducing emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases. Recycling programs are estimated to have kept the equivalent of 39 million car's worth of carbon out of the atmosphere in 2006, saving the equivalent of 10 billion gallons of gasoline.
A key factor in the viability of recycling programs is demand for recycled products. When consumers purchase products made from recycled materials, they are not only saving valuable natural resources and energy, but are also supporting necessary markets for recycled materials.
Repair or upgrade
Repair rates have dropped in the US in the recent past. In fact, 16 percent fewer products are being repaired in the US than in previous years. Both appliance-repair and electronics-repair shops have seen significant declines in the last 15 years. By simply purchasing an inexpensive upgrade kit, visiting a repair shop, or applying a dab of glue, many products could be given new life. This reduces the need for buying new, thereby cutting new resource extraction and energy consumption necessary to manufacture from scratch. Unfortunately, many useful products are retired before they’ve outlived their usefulness.
Choosing secondhand items—no matter what the item—means that no new resources or dangerous chemicals are used to make new products. It also prevents products from ending up in landfills where they can leach chemicals into the ground and water.
Unwitting consumers attempting to make green purchasing choices may be inadvertently supporting nasty, polluting industries. Large banking institutions have often been criticized for funding environmentally questionable industries, such as illegal logging in Indonesia or oil pipelines in Russia. They’ve also been accused of funding political parties and causes that are anti-environment. Banks offering green affinity credit cards hope to give consumers a way to make their everyday purchases work for the environment. For instance, a typical year’s $9,000 spending activity with GE’s Earth Reward MasterCard could offset 10 tons of emissions, or the equivalent of one individual’s annual carbon footprint.
Green claims may not mean real-life eco-friendly products, so dig a little to be sure your online purchase is truly green. A recent study by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing found that of the 1,018 products examined, all but one committed at least a few sins of greenwashing in their attempt to convince consumers that their product was greener than it actually was.
Need a little help distinguishing the true thing from the fakes? Check out this Responsible Shopper guide which'll give you the skinny on the social and environmental impact of major corporations. And check out What's Green? to find out how GreenYour chooses products.
Online shipping woes
While many claim that shopping online is better for the environment, there are those who question the green wisdom in this thinking. For instance, one Amazon.com order air-shipped overnight from a single national warehouse to five different gift recipients (living in disparate locations) could conceivably offset all that energy efficiency gained from fewer individual shopping trips or local trucks delivering out of smaller regional warehouses.
Then there’s the issue of packaging. In 2006, New York City saw a 21 percent jump in post-Christmas cardboard and mixed paper recycling compared to the year before, attributed largely to the increase in online orders received by the city’s residents. In fact, a recent Carnegie Mellon study showed that e-commerce purchases require two and a half times more packaging than in-person shopping transactions.
Local vs. big box
Wal-Mart, Whole Foods Market, and Macy’s have all recently made some significant green commitments. From Wal-Mart’s push to sell millions of CFL light bulbs and its commitment to purchase only sustainably caught wild fish to Whole Foods’ elimination of disposable plastic bags and commitment to renewable energy, these companies are leading the way to green in the business world. With their tremendous purchasing power and their ability to advertise to millions (if not billions) of consumers, the potential for effecting significant change in the world of capitalism is tremendous.
Yet there are concerns about the benefits of big green stores. Large, centralized companies (big box stores, for instance) control more and more of the economy. These big businesses are no longer connected to individual communities and therefore do not feel a responsibility for their health and wellbeing. When big box stores take the place of small, independently-owned companies, communities lose jobs, cash flow is diverted away from the community, and the local tax base shrinks.
When consumers shop at local stores, on the other hand, more money re-circulates in the community because local businesses often purchase from other local businesses, service providers, etc. Locally owned and operated businesses also add character and uniqueness. And where large stores often set up shop on the fringes of town, local businesses thrive in the centers where consumers can come and go using public transport, local walking paths, and other low-impact transportation methods.
So, as with any purchasing decision, discretion is advised. Using some of your dollars to purchase green products from big box stores will help to send a signal that the market supports their green changes. Spending money that’ll stay in your community with responsible vendors will also help to keep local vendors healthy and strong.
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