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How To Shop Online and Be Kinder to the Planet

How To Shop Online and Be Kinder to the Planet
How To Shop Online and Be Kinder to the Planet
November 25, 2022   //   

By Shira Ovide

Here’s a north star to guide you to planet-conscious shopping: A choice that involves the fewest miles driven to your door is generally better for the environment. That might be buying online or in a store — or better yet, buying nothing at all.

Figuring that out is tricky and depends on your personal circumstances.

If one courier van is dropping off packages to a bunch of people on your street in a single trip, that can produce fewer climate-warming emissions than all those neighbors driving back and forth to stores far away, according to Anne Goodchild, a University of Washington professor who studies the climate emissions of transportation.

But it’s not that simple.

Goodchild told me that if you buy some of the items on your weekly grocery list online and still drive to the supermarket for the rest, those two shopping moments could produce more climate-harming emissions than a single delivery or drive. If you ordered a new blender for delivery instead of buying one on the drive home from work, that might be worse for the environment.

Other factors like the type of car you drive, where your products are coming from and whether your neighborhood is spread out or has many homes close together also affect the climate emissions produced. I know this feels tiring. I don’t blame you if you just want to buy dog food and not think so hard.

But you don’t have to be perfect or crunch your personal CO2 emissions to shop online while being a little gentler on the planet. Here is what you can do:

Slower delivery is good. Buying less stuff is even better.

Websites often don’t give you the option, but when they do, Goodchild advised opting for delivery times that take multiple days rather than one or two. Amazon started the go-go need for speed to your door, and many other websites have followed.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Fast shipping at no additional cost is now what you expect but it has a cost. Slower delivery times allow delivery companies to bunch orders together, ship stuff by truck instead of planes and send vans stuffed with packages on routes that guzzle less gas. That’s more sustainable.

If you’re thinking, hahahahahaha, everyone wants things RIGHT NOW … When a Mexican retailer showed shoppers a message about how many trees might be saved by their choice, 90 percent of people said they were willing to wait about five days, MIT researchers have explained. It was a small experiment, but one that showed people may be eager to protect the planet if it feels manageable.

Companies will often choose the speediest delivery for you, but you can sometimes switch to slower delivery when you’re checking out.

Here are two examples from earlier this week on Amazon and Best Buy. The companies automatically picked the fastest delivery window, but you can instead click the option to wait a little longer.

Goodchild’s second recommendation is tough medicine: The most environmentally friendly shopping choice is buying nothing at all. You don’t have to renounce all your possessions or anything. It’s about being more thoughtful and asking: Do I need this?

One suggestion I heard was to try waiting 24 hours before clicking “buy.” Maybe that gizmo you put in your virtual shopping cart while you were bored on Thanksgiving won’t seem so exciting if you waited until today to check out.

Companies (and your life) work against you.

Straight talk: The way we live is not conducive to slowing climate change. You might want or need to drive long distances for work, school or life. Electric cars are expensive to buy. We need stuff, and buying things in the most convenient way we can — of course we want that.

Online shopping can also undermine your best intentions for your budget and the planet. It’s so easy to buy and return that it’s tough to be mindful about what or how you buy. And it’s better for online stores if you turn off your brain.

We can adapt. And you are part of the picture but the responsibility for change is not yours alone. Real fixes will require global scale changes and a recognition that we need to work together.