Online Shopping and the Environment: It's Not Easy Being 'Green'




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Online shopping is hailed for being convenient and timesaving. But do the benefits outweigh potentially non-environmental-friendly side effects?

Take product packaging, for instance. Products purchased at retail outlets are usually delivered to stores in bulk, but those arriving at mailboxes or doorsteps often require individual packaging—resulting in greater waste, according to a packaging expert at Rochester Institute of Technology.

“The product distribution system for Internet sales (similar to mail-order catalog sales) normally requires more packaging material because the wholesale-retail system is circumvented,” says Fritz Yambrach, a professor of packaging science at Rochester Institute of Technology. RIT's packaging science program is one of only six in the nation.

Further, even though consumers save gasoline by shopping online, most products still must be shipped—meaning energy consumption and pollution by society as a whole likely are not reduced appreciably.

Ultimately, consumers will decide if the benefits of online shopping outweigh the detriments. So far, they seem to be turning to the Internet mostly to research future purchases that are later made in person, according to the Gartner Group. The firm says four in 10 consumers research future purchases online, but less than 2 percent buy online.

Additionally, anecdotal evidence suggests that 100 percent of children wishing to sit on Santa's lap must still do so in person by visiting a mall or a store. So, the man in the red suit, by drawing shoppers into stores and delivering presents in an environmentally friendly, reindeer-powered sleigh, may be the 'greenest' of them all.

To speak with Fritz Yambrach about packaging trends, contact Michael Saffran, associate director of RIT University News Services, at 585-475-5697 or mjsuns@rit.edu.