Attention, Online Shoppers

Is shopping online or in-store better for the environment? It depends—on you.

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Order a new memory stick online, and chances are it will arrive packaged, like a Russian nesting doll, in a box within a box within a box. But if you avoid that waste by driving to a store to make your purchase, your carbon footprint could be twice as great. What’s the eco-conscious consumer to do? When it comes to online versus in-store shopping, “it’s not as easy as saying one is better than the other,” says Darby Hoover, an NRDC senior resource specialist. “There are so many factors to consider that I tend to say, ‘Let’s think about how to make either most efficient.’ There are a lot of ways to reduce the impact of both.”

By giving a little thought to how you shop, you can reduce the associated packaging, emissions, and other environmental costs. Here are five things to consider before you hit that checkout button (or aisle).

1. Make a list; check it twice.

Whether you’re shopping online or around town, make a list of all your needs, then shop at as few stores (or sites) as possible. It’s good for your budget and your carbon footprint. Also avoid single-item purchases: Stocking up in one trip or bundling your e-buys cuts down on transportation costs and packaging waste. Post-purchase, limit your returns. If you shop with plans to “keep one and return the rest” (hello, bathing-suit season), try to buy all options from a single retailer so you have only one package to mail back or one return trip to the store to make.

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2. Consider letting someone else do the heavy lifting.

Delivery companies have immense incentive to plot the most efficient routes with the fullest trucks to keep fuel costs—and emissions—down. (Some delivery trucks may even be more efficient than your family sedan.) Because the drive to and from stores accounts for the bulk of carbon emissions in the buying process for the average shopper, relying on delivery trucks can be the most environmentally sound way to get your goods. In one scenario outlined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 30 families skipping the weekly, four-mile drive to the supermarket in favor of one grocery delivery truck going to each of their houses could cut emissions in half. The “average shopper” isn’t always car-dependent, though. If you can take public transportation, walk, or bike to the store, shopping in person is likely the better option.

3. Remember that good things come in small packages.

Some 35.4 million tons of corrugated boxes were produced in the United States in 2014, with online retailers among the fastest-growing users. You can help influence how things are shipped and packaged. For instance, kick the bag habit at the supermarket by bringing reusable totes and produce bags—you’ll help reduce one of the deadliest forms of ocean trash. Where possible, opt for combined shipment when you’re checking out online, rather than asking a seller to ship individual items from your order as they become available.

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Subscribe to a make-at-home meal delivery service? The industry is booming, and some say it reduces food waste. But it doesn’t do the same for packaging. Hoover says eco-conscious consumers should wield their purchasing power to help remedy this issue. Look for meal delivery companies “that tell you what’s in your box, what can typically be recycled, and what you can send back,” she says. When you see poor shipping practices on the part of a vendor, say something. “Companies need to hear from their consumers,” Hoover says. “They need to hear people say, ‘I cooked this meal, and it was great, but I’m appalled by all these tiny plastic bags. What can you do about this?’” Finally, reuse or recycle whatever shipping waste you do acquire, or donate it to a local packing store; many accept materials like secondhand packing peanuts and bubble wrap.

4. Give up instant gratification.

Same-day delivery. Delivery within hours. Delivery within minutes. “It’s interesting how quickly these expedited offerings become perceived as a necessity,” Hoover says. According to one study by the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, buying online generally has a lower carbon footprint than shopping in a store—except when online shoppers choose rush delivery. By prioritizing speed over efficiency, shippers often forgo the lowest-carbon, lowest-fuel-cost delivery option. Instead of holding back a delivery truck until it’s crammed with goods, a company promising delivery by a set time may need to send out a half-empty vehicle. “[Rush delivery] is great for emergency and last-minute needs,” Hoover says. “But that’s how you should use it.”

5. Ask yourself whether you’re shopping to satisfy a need or a want.

Conspicuous consumption and the resulting proliferation of disposable goods in our society, Hoover says, “has been biting us in the butt for decades.” Indeed, about 42 percent of U.S. emissions are in some way connected to making, moving, or disposing of products and food. (The apparel industry alone emits 10 percent of the entire globe’s greenhouse gases.) Help rein in global pollutants (and your clotheshorse tendencies) by seeking opportunities—whether in-store or online—to buy used and refurbished items and to regift and repurpose the things you already own. Also, beware the impulse buy (“That two-for-one deal tends to lead to more waste,” Hoover says.), and consider the impacts of your purchases not just on your wallet but also on the environment. If you need any more motivation to slow your shopping habits, remember this: Decluttering is fashionable now, too.

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