Why the ‘last mile’ has the biggest environmental impact when you shop online


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The last thing I ordered from Amazon was a big jug of Drano. Could I have gone and picked one up at the local hardware store? Yes, but I didn’t want to dedicate any more time to my clogged shower drain than was necessary. It’s nice when an order arrives two days after I click “buy now,” but also kind of scary. I know this habit has a negative impact on the environment, and according to new research, it all comes down to the order’s last mile.

A study published this week in Environmental Science & Technology examined the different ways we purchase fast-moving consumer goods, like personal care and home care products that are typically low-priced, sell quickly, and purchased frequently.

“The last mile part is the main phase that causes the differences between the different shopping channels,” study co-author Sadegh Shahmohammadi, an environmental scientist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, told Scientific American. Physically going to the store and picking up your items seems like the best option. Your order isn’t coming from some faraway warehouse, it’s just two miles from your house. But the store didn’t make those items—someone had to ship it to them. The difference in greenhouse gas emissions all comes down to your mode of transportation, the distance you traveled, and the number of items purchased.

The study examined three primary ways of shopping, brick and mortar, brick and click, and pure play, and the greenhouse gas emissions each mode produces. Brick and mortar is the simplest: just going to the store, picking up what you need, and going home. Brick and click is store-based e-commerce, which is when you purchase something online through a store near you, and have it delivered (hi, Instacart). Pure play is non-store-based e-commerce, like Amazon. Keep reading to find different shopping scenarios impact the environment.

When brick and mortar is best

The study found that 95 percent of shopping trips in the U.S. are made by car, compared to 44 percent in the Netherlands. If you’re walking or biking to the store, brick and mortar is your best bet.

It’s also much better to buy clothes in person, because you have the option of trying the pieces on before you buy. The study says the return rate is much higher from online purchases, which means your order has to go through yet another round of shipping.

When brick and click is best

If you usually drive to the grocery store, getting groceries from your local store delivered will produce lower green house gas emissions, the study shows. Imagine that all of your neighbors drove to the local store. Each car has to get there, and get back. If you all placed a delivery order, one truck would grab your groceries, and drop them off.

When pure play is best

It isn’t. The study authors found that there isn’t really a time when traditional online shopping is best because consumers who frequently shop online make the same total number of trips to shops as consumers who do not. Between packaging, transportation between distribution centers, and the last-mile delivery to your home, this method yields the highest green house gas emissions.

To make your online orders a bit greener, aim to consolidate your orders. Say your shopping list contains everything from acne soap to a cast-iron skillet. Place one online order for everything you need, and opt to bundle your items, rather than having each item shipped individually. And if you can wait, choose the longer shipping option. The study suggests that fast-delivery options negatively impact delivery route efficiency.

Bottom line, all three of these methods are a big part of our society. But consumers can’t bear the burden of making more sustainable choices to save the planet alone. Real change is only possible when companies feel public pressure enough to address their environmental impact.

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