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Cyber Monday vs. Black Friday — a Carbon Emissions Comparison

The concept of Cyber Monday — when online retailers offer sweet deals to e-shoppers the first Monday after Black Friday — might have been dreamed up a few years ago as a marketing concoction, but I can’t help but think about its emergence, and the trend toward more online shopping, as a solid indicator of how broadband can help reduce carbon emissions. I have yet to see analysts crunch the numbers on the carbon emissions of Black Friday (when many shoppers get into their cars and drive to retail outlets) vs. Cyber Monday (when shoppers sit at their workplaces and homes and click a button to buy), but I would bet that lower carbon emissions numbers would fall solidly on the side of online shopping.

That exact comparison might be hard to produce, as Cyber Monday has actually merged into more of a post-Thanksgiving online shopping holiday weekend. As Stacey on GigaOM points out Cyber Monday has time-shifted from previous years due to the emergence of better home broadband connections (shoppers don’t have to wait for their work Internet connection on Monday to buy). Content deliver company Akamai (s AKAM) reported that around noon ET on Friday almost 6.7 million global visitors per minute were hitting online retail sites, which is almost 50 percent above normal, and on Sunday late afternoon traffic to retail sites hit a peak of 7.38 million visitors per minute.

The important data is that more shoppers have moved online for the holiday season. While the recession has dampened the online shopping trend this year, it’s still there. Research firm comScore, which tracks online spending, has predicted a 3 percent rise in holiday online spending, to $28.8 billion from $28 billion last year.

In general the big carbon difference between retail spending and online spending seems to be the carbon emissions from driving to the outlet to buy the goods. According to research from Carnegie Mellon University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University published in August, purchasing a CD online and having it shipped to you (both by air and road) takes produces fewer carbon emissions than driving to an outlet and buying that same CD. In that report over half of the carbon emissions from buying a CD at a retail outlet came from the customer driving to the store.

Of course not everything is as easy to ship as a CD, and heavier goods, shipped longer distances, will increase the carbon emissions associated with online shopping. There’s also added energy from Internet shopping, as data centers, routers and computer all use electricity to work.

But the carbon reductive powers of broadband-enabled dematerialization, or reducing physical goods and transportation with virtual options, is very real. According to The Climate Group’s Smart 2020 report published back in 2008, information and communication technology (ICT) can reduce the world’s carbon emissions across sectors by 15 percent (about 5 times the amount of the ICT sector’s own added carbon footprint). Dematerialization — from reduced transportation from e-commerce and telepresence as well as virtual goods replacing physical goods — could prevent 500 million tons of CO2 by 2020 (which is a little less than Australia’s total emissions in 2005).

At the end of the day the carbon reductive properties of broadband-enabled dematerialization will never be an easy thing to prove. But in a world where people seem to be using more energy and driving more miles in their cars, technology trends that offer a lower-emission alternative are something to be thankful for. Just look at one of the most popular goods sold for both Black Friday and Cyber Monday — Amazon’s (s AMZN) Kindle. Researchers have found that a device like the Kindle could displace 22.5 physical books per year, and thus deliver an estimated savings of 168 kg of CO2 per year. While holiday shoppers aren’t buying the Kindle for its environmental reasons, for once the technological trend is moving in the right direction.

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