Let's Stop Pitting In-Store vs. Online Shopping: Both Need to Up Their Sustainability

jason_mathersWe all like clear-cut, simple, black and white answers. But the world, as you well know, is a really complex place. Yet despite this general acknowledgment of complexity, we still get caught-up in simplified debates: paper vs plastic; cloth vs disposable diapers; and now shopping online vs shopping at the store.

This is not a cage match. The fact of the matter is that both shopping online and shopping at stores are here to stay. And this is a good thing. We now have more choices. Citizens and companies can leverage these choices to minimize their environmental foot print.

Into the debate mindset, Simon Property Group released an assessment, Think Before You Click: Does Shopping Behavior Impact Sustainability? Simon is a leading real estate company that owns a number of malls. It also has been a host company for EDF Climate Corps.

The paper is a valuable because it sheds light on one way people shop: buying multiple items at once and combining the shopping trip with other activities. It concludes that — in the specific scenario Simon created — shopping at the store has a lower environmental impact.

To me, the conclusion is the least insightful aspect of the study. It is not surprising that a large owner of malls would choose a scenario that highlights the attributes of shopping at malls compared to shopping online. What is most insightful to me is the attributes that determine the environmental impact.

Global shopping cartDistance from a retail location, distance and method of online delivery, likelihood of returns, building energy use and packaging were all attributes that were examined in the Simon paper. These attributes were also the factors used in the most authoritative research I have yet read on the topic, which came from the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics. The Simon paper went one attribute further, though.

Key to the findings of the Simon paper was the fact that its scenario includes the purchase of four items. It also made the assumption that buying these online would result in four distinct deliveries. Given the diversity of items purchased, this certainly could be the case. It however does not need to be.

The fact is there are many opportunities to reduce the environmental impact associated with goods purchased online. There are also many opportunities to reduce the environmental impact associated with goods purchased at stores. It also must be noted that transportation and packaging are but two of the numerous aspects of product lifecycle impact.

What are these opportunities?

For companies that sell online, they can:

  1. Provide incentives for customers to choose less impactful delivery options. “Free” shipping is here to stay, of course. Companies could provide reward points or other inducements for customers to choose the four to five day option instead of the two-day or overnight.
  2. Provide incentives for customers to return more sparingly. As much as a third of online purchases are returned. The environmental impact associated with the returns was a significant factor in the Simon scenario and those examined by MIT. Again, there is an opportunity here for reward points or other inducements.
  3. Get serious about tackling excessive packaging. As the New York Times recently reported, “4 million tons of containerboard were produced in 2014 in the United States, with e-commerce companies among the fastest-growing users.” Let’s deal with this.

For companies that set-up physical stores:

  1. Invest in increasing public transportation options for your locations.
  2. Increase the energy efficiency of your operations. Upgrading lighting and HVAC systems are a good place to start. Join the many other retailers hosting EDF Climate Corps fellows to undertake this type of work.
  3. Explore on-sight generation of renewable energy. An apt example here is how Simon worked with EDF Climate Corps in 2015.

Both online and bricks and mortar retailers have ample opportunities to reduce the impact of the goods moving into their warehouses and stores. Retailers and their suppliers should:

  1. Get the most out of every move. Combine and adapt packaging to maximize cube utilization.  A fuller move is a greener, as demonstrated by Walmart, Kraft and others.
  2. Choose the most carbon-efficient transport mode. Ocean Spray Cranberries and many others are cutting carbon and costs with this approach.
  3. Collaborate with other freight shippers. Colgate, Kimberly Clark and CVS are showing the way here.

The EDF Green Freight Handbook is a solid resource for companies needed to get a start on these types of actions.

The world is complex, which is good news because this complexity gives us choices. I’m choosing to focus on how to manage these complexities to improve our environment and economy. I’d love to have you join me; the only requirement is to leave the online vs in-store mind-set at the door.

Follow Jason Mathers on Twitter: @jasonmathers