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Greenhouse gas emissions: Bricks and mortar versus Online shopping


In a win for bricks and mortar retailing, according to a recent scientific study, traditional shopping from bricks and mortar stores is usually less environmentally damaging than online shopping. 

The peer-reviewed study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, was carried out by researchers from the UK, Sweden, and the Netherlands and funded by the EU Horizon Program, used a model to compare the carbon footprints of shopping for fast-moving consumer goods from three UK retail channels. 

The three channels comprised

  • CHANNEL 1: Bricks and Mortar (UK) – travelling to a store, purchasing goods, and transporting them home.
  • CHANNEL 2: Bricks and Clicks - buying online with fulfilment and delivery provided by the store.
  • CHANNEL 3: Pure players - Online shopping from non-store based retail outlets with parcel delivery.

The full results of the study appear below, and we will look at them in some more detail, but summarising the headline findings:

  • Bricks and clicks - reduces the carbon footprint compared to traditional brick and mortar shopping
  • Pure players - increases the carbon footprint compared to traditional brick and mortar shopping.
The major contributors to these differences are the number of items purchased and the "last mile" travel distance. Also, swapping delivery vans for electric cargo bikes reduces the carbon footprint of parcel delivery by 26%. The study also compared the "last mile footprints" with those in the United States, China, and the Netherlands.

 The Model - Bricks & Clicks versus Online Retailing

The model included CO2 emissions from upstream transport, storage, and last-mile transport for all three channels. The researchers also modelled the impact of packaging on last-mile deliveries for the pure players' channel. They assumed that the products were packaged in a corrugated carbon box with the void being backed with kraft paper with the packaging recycled.

 Results of the study

We show the full results of the study in the chart below (citation: Environ. Sci. Technol. 2020, 54, 6, 3499-3509) for all three channels broken down as CO2 emissions per item. The most significant contributor to emissions is last-mile transport in the pure players' channel. Here the total CO2 emission per item is significantly higher than the other two channels.

 How to reduce your shopping carbon footprint

Thanks to the study, we now have a much clearer vision of reducing our carbon footprint when shopping. When shopping at traditional bricks and mortar stores, the best way to reduce your carbon footprint is to include your shopping trip with a longer journey, such as shopping on your way home from work. Using more environmentally friendly transport such as an EV or public transport will also provide a significant reduction.

Online retailers who do not have a physical store can reduce their carbon footprint by switching from vans to more environmentally friendly delivery methods such as electric vehicles. In addition, when you shop from these outlets, you would reduce your carbon footprint by buying multiple items from the same store and opting to have them all delivered together rather than individually when each item is ready. It is also better to forego fast delivery as that allows more efficient delivery options, though admittedly, that is a little difficult as we tend to want to receive our purchases as quickly as possible. 

The CO2 saving you can make when bricks-and-clicks shopping depends on how you would shop traditionally. If you usually cycle to the shops, then switching to non-store based online shopping with parcel delivery would increase rather than decrease your carbon footprint. But if you would usually drive a combustion engine vehicle, then switching to an EV will reduce your impact.

While we are focusing on the situation in the UK, it is interesting to note that the differences across the channels are significantly higher in the United States as 95% of pure players shoppers use their cars.
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