Is Online Shopping Worse for the Planet than Going to the Mall?

You may be reading this blog in between pointing-and-clicking your way through your holiday shopping list; perhaps you’re even patting yourself on the back about all the fuel you’re saving by not driving around buying the gifts in person. But depending on where you live and where on the Internet you shop, buying things online could actually be worse for the environment than hitting your local mall.

All those shipping materials add up — last year, New York City’s Department of Sanitation reported a 21 percent jump in the amount of cardboard and mixed paper left on the curbs. And in big cities like New York, where many people do their shopping by mass transit anyway, the fuel savings of not hitting the stores can be pretty negligible. That isn’t to say that people who go to stores don’t then go on to ship their goods, it’s merely an illustration of how going online doesn’t automatically equal going greener.

Where there’s a collective will (and money to be made), there’s a way: lately, an increasing number of choices for the eco-conscious online shopper have been popping up. Sites that sell environmentally friendly goods, like Ecomall and Gaiam, have been around for years, but not everyone wants to make a statement with their gifts, nor do they want to hear little Johnny complain when he gets a Nalgene bottle instead of an iPod.

An interesting new option is EarthMoment, which was launched in October, and bills itself as a “carbon offset comparison shopping site.” The brainchild of Ogden publishers (Utne Reader, Mother Earth News), it’s teamed up with over 1,000 companies to offer 15 million different goods from major retailers including Apple and Borders. If you end up buying something through the EarthMoment site, the retailer pays them a commission, half of which they invest in carbon offsetting (managed by CarbonFund.org). Now you can feel a little bit better about adding that extra gift and having it shipped to yourself.

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