March 17, 2009, 12:00 AM

U.K. scientists agree: E-commerce is better for the environment

In a similar finding as U.S. researchers in a recent study, U.K. scientists say on average a purchase of an item online for delivery to the consumer’s home generates less of the carbon dioxide associated with global warming than shopping in a store.

Arriving at a similar conclusion as U.S. researchers in a recent study, U.K. scientists say on average a purchase of an item online for delivery to the consumer’s home generates less of the carbon dioxide associated with global warming than shopping in a store. But there are qualifications.

The new report says the typical e-commerce purchase sent to a home generates 181 grams of carbon dioxide, compared with 4,274 grams, or nearly 24 times as much, for an average shopping trip by car. Thus, they conclude that online shopping is better for the environment-unless the store shopper buys at least 24 items. They also note that a trip to the store by bus only produces 1,265 grams of carbon dioxide, which would reduce the number of items that would have to be bought to make that shopping method more environmentally friendly than e-commerce.

The study entitled “Carbon Auditing the ‘Last Mile’: Modelling the Environmental Impacts of Conventional and Online Non-food Shopping,” was written by J.B. Edwards, A.C. McKinnon and S.L. Cullinane of the Logistics Research Centre at the School of Management and Languages of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland.

They note that online retailers can help reduce carbon emissions with some changes in practices, such as finding ways to reduce failed attempts at home delivery. They estimate 2% to 30% of home deliveries from online retailers fail, a wide range that varies according to such factors as whether the delivery service is prepared to leave a package with a neighbor or “in the garden shed.” The placement of reception boxes at consumer’s homes where parcels could be safely left, and the consolidation of deliveries to an area by online retailers are two ways the researchers suggest for reducing carbon emissions from online retailing.

In a report released earlier this month, researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh also concluded that there was typically less environmental impact from online shopping compared with when consumers drive to stores.

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