Sustainability Showdown: Sustainable shopping requires a nuanced approach

Rachel Li/Daily Trojan

NASA announced last week that 2018 was the fourth warmest year ever recorded. Following a trend of continued warming, it’s clear that things aren’t getting much better for the planet. As humans, we’re contributing to climate change with every choice we make.

To combat this, we must reduce our carbon footprint. Cutting down on how much carbon humans emit is crucial to stymying climate change. Every decision we make affects that footprint — even those as seemingly trivial as shopping  online instead of driving to a brick-and-mortar store.

What is the more sustainable option? Should you drive the 28 miles round-trip to LUSH on Third Street Promenade to restock on your bath bombs or order them online and have them delivered?

The annoying but honest answer? It depends.

Products have to be shipped regardless, whether it’s to your doorstep or to the store. But driving a passenger car 20 miles round-trip without carpooling is simply wasteful. Using a car is probably more efficient than using a diesel delivery truck. However, the delivery truck will make multiple deliveries on the road anyway.

Also, delivery trucks are more efficient than ever, due to the correlation between efficient delivery and cost-effectiveness for companies, unless you’ve selected two-day rush shipping. Most often, rush orders require a separate delivery truck to go out, adding to the number of trucks on the road and amount of emissions released.

According to a study from The Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, consumers can minimize the environmental impact of online shopping by choosing the slowest delivery method available. A 20-mile round trip to buy two small products consumes about one gallon of gas. But having those same packages shipped 1,000 miles in a delivery truck uses only one-tenth of a gallon, the study states.

When someone orders a product online, each individual item has to be packaged in a separate parcel. If someone orders a bunch of things that will ship separately, which happens often with Amazon, it would mean even more wasteful packaging.

Another factor to consider is the type of item being purchased. Clothing often ends up returned because of wrong sizes or fits. This would require an extra trip, whether the consumer ends up driving it to the store or sending it back through the mail.

If you’re planning to buy clothes, it would be better to drive to the physical store to try on the items to ensure a good fit before purchasing. But it’s also important to consider that a physical storefront requires more energy to run the lighting, air conditioning and other systems than a warehouse.

Ordering items in bundles and choosing standard shipping is ultimately the most sustainable route most of the time. However, if you need something within the next day or two from a store that is within 20 miles back and forth, it would be better to drive to the store and pick it up yourself. An even more sustainable option would be to hop on public transit to a local store. You could even ride a bike to get there.

Like most decisions surrounding sustainability, choosing the best option for shopping requires nuance. What is important is that you consider the impact of the choices you are making. Being aware of the impact we are having on this planet, no matter how small a decision it may seem, is paramount to thwarting climate change and saving this beautiful pale blue dot.

Katherine Wiles is a senior writing about environmentalism and sustainability. Her column, “Sustainability Showdown,” runs every other Wednesday.