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I found myself wondering the other day, is it better to drive to a store to get an item or is it better to order it online? (I know, my mind may work in mysterious ways. And, I’m fully aware that in many parts of the world, there’s not even a choice). Here in the U.S., where we are responsible for a boatload of carbon dioxide emissions, it’s a good question to ask.

Do you want to know the answer? Actually the answer is…wait for it…”it depends”.

Let me explain. If you’re running out to pick up the kids at school or to grab some dinner, and the store is on the way, then you aren’t adding much of an environmental cost by stopping at the store for your item. The ‘combine-your-errands’ recommendation to save fuel still holds true when you’re talking about what’s coming out of the tailpipe of your vehicle.

Where it becomes less clear is when you are deciding to make a special trip to find that item or deciding to buy it online. A UPS truck full of packages, including your item, uses a lot less fuel per package that you going out and making a special trip for your item (unless you are riding a bike or walking).

What happens if you have multiple items to buy? Again that depends. If you’re shopping online for a bunch of separate items, from a variety of vendors, or choosing rush shipping (meaning it’s less likely those items can be consolidated into one box) then it is better to go out to one store, or several stores that are close to each other, to get your items. If you have a long way to drive just to get to stores though, the math changes.

What happens if you get an item online and you want to return it? Is it better to ship it back or make an in-store return (if that’s available)? It turns out it’s better to return it to the store. Most likely you’ll have to drive to bring the box somewhere to ship it anyway, but once there, it won’t be consolidated with other returns like it can be if you return it to a store.

Generally, the amount of carbon dioxide expended by an online shopper is two times smaller than someone running out to the stores. If you become an impulse buyer online (so easy to press those buttons!), in a hurry to get your items, well, you may need to read a different article than this one.

So what’s the conclusion? It’s best to shop online, plan ahead so your items can be consolidated rather than rushed, and if something doesn’t work out, return it to the brick and mortar store if possible. And while you are out, consolidate your errands, recycle the boxes that your online items came in, and support some local businesses.

Terry Lawson Dunn

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