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Shopping Online: Green Shopping and the Environment

written by: Kantha Wijeratne•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 1/15/2010

This article discusses how shopping online can affect our carbon footprint. It explains how shopping online can save time, money and energy over traditional ways of buying goods. It also looks at factors that can contribute to a greener shopping experience.

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    Imagine a typical day of shopping. It can involve driving or taking transit to a super market or mall, choosing from among a tempting range of products and returning home laden with goods. Include in this scenario traffic jams, irritable drivers, visiting shops located far apart, line ups at check out and the impulsive shopping you indulge in. How much time and energy do you use for this one shopping trip? More importantly, how much do we as a society collectively contribute by way of carbon emissions and wastage of energy with such shopping expeditions?

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    Advantages of Green Shopping Online

    Green shopping online offers an alternative to this practice. The rapid expansion in internet trade and services offers some advantages over traditional ways of shopping. Many popular shops and companies now have an internet presence providing information about their products, prices and the opportunity to shop online. There is also the convenience of checking out products and services, reading product reviews, and comparing product features and prices of different vendors with just the click of a mouse. The popularity of organizations such as, e-bay and the Shopping channel is a testament to this growing trend.

    There are other advantages to online shopping that can help you to reduce your carbon footprint. You are free to decide whether to buy a product with no vendor pressure. Once you decide on the product or service, be it a book or CD, electronic gadget, insurance or groceries, payment can be made by charging your credit card or through a secure payment service such as Paypal. An e-receipt or confirmation is issued eliminating the need for tree-based paper. Even if you visit a store, meet people and physically check out the product to make the final purchase, the online research you do beforehand can contribute to a smarter buying decision. Compared to the alternative of traveling to many shops, this method lessens the impact of your carbon footprint.

    Other than the saving in gas and the effect on your carbon footprint, online shopping also provides other savings. For instance, there are some stores such as that offer free shipping for purchases over a certain limit. Many e-stores also offer discounts over traditional brick and mortar outlets as they ship goods out from a central warehouse and can afford to pass on those savings to the consumer.

    You can help reduce your carbon footprint even more with online shopping if you purchase goods within your own country that entails less emission of green house gases during shipping. By opting for ground shipping and not same-day delivery which entails air freight, there would be an even lesser impact on the environment. Couriers ship in bulk, saving carbon emissions made by individual customers visiting retail outlets. They also plan their routes and ways of delivery with energy efficiency in mind. Some eco-friendly couriers such as Puralator are contributing to this effort by using hybrid electric vehicles.

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    Despite the rapid expansion of e-commerce, what is still keeping some from shopping online? At issue are concerns regarding privacy and trust. Most customers do not like to divulge personal information requested by vendors. How much can they trust the vendor’s description of product and assurances of after-sales service? Is the vendor on the verge of bankruptcy? Would they be deluged with spam mail or hit with identity theft arising from this purchase? How safe are online payments?

    Many of these concerns are expected to be addressed in time as more countries, businesses and consumer groups co-operate to practice and enforce rules and regulations for safe online shopping. Until then, we as customers can practice caution in how we shop online. Checking on the reputation of vendors, obtaining references from trusted sources, verification of licenses and complaint resolution procedures from State or Municipal bodies, comparison shopping and using secure internet connections are some habits that we can cultivate for safer shopping online.

    Does online shopping help reduce our carbon footprint? This debate is still open. Despite its many advantages over traditional shopping, critics point to the use of air freight, waste of packaging and part-load deliveries by shippers handling online shipping that negatively affect our carbon footprint.

    There is also a social aspect related to shopping that needs to be considered. Buying locally produced goods can help your community and also reduce the cost of transporting from afar. What you buy, where it is produced and the way you buy such goods matter when deciding between buying online or from a retail outlet.

    Online shopping offers a cost effective way to research products and services even if we decide to make our final purchase at a retail store. It is an eco-friendly practice that can help us as consumers to reduce our individual carbon footprints. Provided shipping of goods is handled in an eco-friendly manner, the effects of shopping online can be even more positive.