Jerry Storch, chief executive of Toys R Us, told the Financial Times that shoppers should consider the environmental impact when buying online. He said (paywall):
It’s very ungreen. [People are] just so enraptured with how cool it is that they can order anything and get it brought to their home that they aren’t thinking about the carbon footprint of that.
Of course, the head of one of the world’s biggest physical toy retailers, would say that—just in time for the Christmas shopping season. But is it true that e-commerce is environmentally-unfriendly? Or at least more so than buying from a shop?
Given the importance of the subject, it’s surprising there isn’t more recent data saying which form of shopping is greener.
The Financial Times noted two of the more recent studies, both from 2009. Research from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh showed that neither shopping online or at a store had a CO2 advantage—though home delivery probably generated a little bit less. Another study from Carnegie Mellon University said that buying a flash drive through Buy.com used less energy and generated 35% less CO2 emissions than buying at a bricks-and-mortar shop. The biggest reason has to do with getting to the store. The report said:
Customer transport encompassed approximately 65% of the traditional retail primary energy expenditures and CO2 equivalent emissions on average. For e-commerce, packaging and last mile delivery were responsible for approximately 22% and 32% of the e-commerce energy usage, respectively. Overall, e-commerce had about 30% lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions compared to traditional retail using calculated mean values.
Without citing numbers, Storch says:
Driving a truck down a country lane in rural Connecticut to deliver a package is hardly the greenest way of product delivery to occur.
He could be right—though we don’t have the numbers—or his message could be self-serving. Last year Toys R Us sold $1 billion worth of products online, or 7% of sales. Would Storch care as much about the environment if those figures were higher?