Online shopping might not be as green as we thought

February 5, 2016
A study by researchers in the Delaware Center for Transportation provides insight into the impacts of home shopping on vehicle operations and greenhouse gas emissions. Credit: Jeffrey C. Chase/ University of Delaware

Logic suggests that online shopping is "greener" than traditional shopping. After all, when people shop from home, they are not jumping into their cars, one by one, to travel to the mall or the big box store.

But a multi-year regional study at the University of Delaware suggests that home shopping has a greater impact on the transportation sector than the public might suspect. The results of the research are documented in a paper, "Impacts of Home Shopping on Vehicle Operations and Greenhouse Gas Emissions," in the International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology.

The study, which focused on the city of Newark, Delaware, was led by Arde Faghri, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Delaware Center for Transportation (DCT).

The project included data collection through a survey to identify shopping behavior and summary of the survey results by product category, followed by simulation and analysis.

"Our simulation results showed that home shopping puts an additional burden on the local transportation network, as identified through four measures of effectiveness—travel time, delay, average speed, and ," says co-author Mingxin Li, a researcher at DCT.

Online shopping might not be as green as we thought
Delaware Center for Transportation researchers Arde Faghri (left) and Mingxin Li. Credit: Arde Faghri

While it's true that e-stores require less space and use less energy, Faghri points out that puts more delivery trucks on the roads, which translates into more wear-and-tear on pavements and increased environmental pollution through the emission of from diesel engines.

An additional problem is that residential and downtown streets were not designed to accommodate frequent truck stops, parking, loading and unloading, so trucks can interfere with through traffic, causing delays and compromising safety.

But what may be the most surprising finding of the study has nothing to do with increased truck traffic.

"We found that the total number of vehicles miles traveled hasn't decreased at all with the growth of online shopping," Faghri says. "This suggests that people are using the time they save by shopping on the internet to do other things like eating out at restaurants, going to the movies, or visiting friends."

Faghri cautions that his study looked only at residential commerce, not purchases made by commercial and industrial businesses, and that the data his team collected was limited to a very small geographic area.

However, he emphasizes that local, state, regional, and national planners need to keep a close eye on the impacts of the home shopping trend when planning and budgeting for infrastructure needs.

"The increase in online shopping also affects land use patterns such as the number and size of stores in large malls with vast parking spaces, as well as changes in labor markets, with, for example, less demand for sales personnel and more for truck drivers," he says.

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not rated yet Feb 06, 2016
That's why you order stuff to a PO box and collect it on your way from work etc.

It also has the added advantage that the delivery guy won't leave a box at your front door where everyone can steal it, or it gets destroyed by rain, so you don't have to be at home when it's delivered.

When the packet is delivered to a post office it's also not subjected to careless minimum-wage delivery workers, because it comes straight in on a neat pallet and is put on a shelf, instead of being kicked around town in a van.
not rated yet Feb 06, 2016
Personally I think that these guys are all wet, oh wait, is that an ethnic disparagement.

Much of the stuff that I order over the internet is either not available locally or wold take many hours of driving store to store to find. How exactly are they accounting for this problem in their research?

Finally, your local shop might not carry the best or highest quality item that meets your needs and purchasing an inferior item locally could very well result in one more thing in the landfill.
not rated yet Feb 06, 2016
or wold take many hours of driving store to store to find.

I usually check on the store's websites for whether they have it, and only then drive over to buy it. Faster than ordering online, because you get the item in the least possible time fetching it yourself.

Even small shops have started to post their inventory online these days, since the cash register systems have a database of all the items they have anyways, in real time. Doing anything else would be silly, since only people who know your shop know to come and browse in person, which nobody does these days since they can order online.

I've bought stuff from little boutiques squeezed between two bricks down a side street simply because they had a website with inventory and their competitor did't. I'll take the trouble trying to find them despite the google maps marker being off by a whole street, because that's less annoying than going to a big chain store and finding out they don't have the stuff.
not rated yet Feb 06, 2016
Yup Eikka, I would much prefer to buy locally but that is becoming less and less possible. When local suppliers charge a lot more for the same item even when shipping costs are entered into the costs I begin to waver. This is a real conundrum for me since I realize that local employment is of paramount importance. Brick and mortar retailers are pretty much a thing of the past and giant robot staffed warehouses are the future.

This is a big philosophical discussion as to what happens when 99% of man's labor is not needed and only the brilliant few are supporting our survival.
not rated yet Feb 06, 2016
This is a real conundrum for me since I realize that local employment is of paramount importance.

Service jobs like retail are not important, because they're basically wasted effort. A retail worker doesn't produce wealth - they only transmit it from one place and person to another, and take a cut for themselves in between - so they're a necessary evil when there are no better means of distributing goods.

The less labor we need at the retail and distribution level, the more efficiently we get the actual wealth from the people who produce it to the people who consume it, and the more labor we have available to produce wealth in the first place.

The unfortunate fact is that the distribution and retail level is the most profitable part, because of monopolies in infrastructure and supply chains such as having a Walmart in every town. A producer can't get their product sold if they don't play along, so the large chains can take a disproportionate cut.
not rated yet Feb 06, 2016
The same thing goes for most service jobs: these jobs are about transmitting wealth from somewhere to somewhere and taking a cut for yourself in between. Usually the service jobs are about making someone consume something - food, energy, raw materials - in order to have an excuse to sell it to them. Basically, creating needs that would not be needs unless we pretend so.

That is a problem for society when services are more profitable for the individual than anything else. If you have an easier time making money buying and selling, or throwing lawsuits at people, or singing and dancing for entertainment, you're less likely to bother producing anything, and so fewer and fewer people choose to make their living by creating new wealth while more and more people make their living through consuming it.

The end result is deepening class divisions, high income disparity, widespread poverty and eventually the neglect and collapse of the social infrastructure.
not rated yet Feb 06, 2016
The perfect example of a counter-productive service is the entertainment and advertising industry.

It's highly profitable for the particular people involved - especially when they have legal monopolies through copyrights and trademarks - but socially it's like shooting yourself in the foot, because nobody actually needs the overflow of cheaply made "entertainment" that is produced in order to advertise products in order for the top few corporations to out-yell their competition in order to sell more products that few actually need.

A huge effort is spent, billions of dollars, terawatt-hours of energy and mountains of materials are wasted, shot up the sky, burned in effigy, buried in sacrifice - on a song and dance - while half the world is starving and even the richer half is choking on its own pollution.

100 years ago only the rich had a gramophone. Today you can't throw a stone without hitting a recording artist or some indie game programmer / graphic artist.
not rated yet Feb 06, 2016
Ebay now does their best to force people to ship to their facility (intermediary) rather than directly to an end-customer. This introduces (up to) a couple thousand extra miles of shipping to the equation which IMO, is hardly "green."

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