True or false? Online shopping greener than the mall

September 29, 2010

Mario Gagarin, who works for United Parcel Service, balances packages as he makes deliveries in Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, July 22, 2010. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang  Unless you’re in the habit of purchasing bulk orders when you shop online, you can ditch the notion you are helping the environment by skipping a trip to the mall, a recent study has found.

New research by The Institution of Engineering and Technology at Newcastle University in Britain shows online shoppers must order more than 25 items to have any less impact on the environment than traditional shopping due to resources required for shipping and handling.

The study looked at “rebound” effects — or unintended side-effects of policies designed to reduce carbon emissions — of activities that are commonly thought to be green.

Working from home is another commonly mistaken “green” activity, the study said. This practice actually increases home energy use by as much as 30 per cent, and can lead to people moving further from the workplace, stretching urban sprawl and automobile use which increases pollution, the study said.

“Policy makers must do their homework to ensure that rebound effects do not negate the positive benefits of their policy initiatives and simply move carbon emissions from one sector to another,” said Professor Phil Blythe, Chair of the IET Transport Policy Panel and Professor of Intelligent Transport Systems at Newcastle University that produced the report.

While the study focused on transportation issues in the UK, bringing the study to the U.S. could be beneficial for local policy planning, green technology website Green.blorge notes.  ” What works in New York City or Boston won’t work for New Orleans or Jackson, Mississippi,” the website says.

One comment

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[...] Economists at Newcastle University believe  the “rebound” effects of policies designed to reduce carbon emissions mean  neither shopping online or working at home are the “green” choice. [...]

[...] Green lifestyles of the rich and possibly deluded: Economists at Newcastle University believe the "rebound" effects of policies designed to reduce carbon emissions mean neither shopping online or working at home are the "green" choice. [...]

While the concept of a rebound effect is important and should be illustrated, the two specifics cited in this article seem to differ substantially in this way:

While I can’t really know about the environmental impacts of shipping a package from an online merchant to my home, I have a lot of say in how much my personal energy usage increases or decreases due to working from home.

The implied assumption that people who work at home live in sprawl-land and not in a fairly dense urban area may not be true. In fact, working from home is more convenient if one lives near coffee shops, business customers, libraries, and other places to either conduct business or get out of the house while still being productive. Taking a short walk in a real community also is beneficial to a home worker.

These features typically occurs not in sprawling subdivisions but in more urban parts of a region.

Secondly, energy usage may increase at home but driving may decrease, and there is also a lower energy consumption at some workplace. I’ve yet to see a workplace where people are as careful about turning out the lights and generally stretching the organization’s money as they are at home.

Thirdly, what if there is more than one home worker in a household? That’s not unusual these days. The marginal energy cost of the second worker may be negligible.

But my point is that the work at home situation all depends on the particular circumstances, and they are circumstances an individual can judge. So perhaps it’s less productive to research working at home than on-line shopping.

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[...] particular study comes out in favor of the online shopper.However, another study by Britain’s Newcastle University suggests all is not so rosy. Why? This study includes the controversial rebound effect or the [...]