Science Focus - the home of BBC Science Focus Magazine
High-street shopping greener than some types of online shopping © Getty Images

High-street shopping greener than some types of online shopping

Published: 29th February, 2020 at 14:00
Subscribe to BBC Science Focus Magazine and get 6 issues for just £9.99

Researchers estimated the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with fast-moving consumer goods purchased in the UK.

Online shopping may save you from driving to the high street but it’s not necessarily saving the planet. According to a new study by the American Chemical Society, going to the shops can produce fewer greenhouses gases than some forms of online shopping.


The researchers behind the study estimated the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with fast-moving consumer goods (low-priced products that sell quickly and are bought frequently – typically toiletries, cleaning supplies and packaged foods) purchased in the UK.

Although shoppers have traditionally bought such items at physical shops (bricks & mortar), online sales are increasing in many countries, including China, the US and the UK. As well as bricks & mortar shopping, the study also investigated two main types of online shopping for fast-moving consumer goods: online ordering followed by home delivery from a physical store (bricks & clicks) and online shopping with fulfilment via a parcel delivery company (pure play).

“In the UK, the total greenhouse gas emission footprints of bricks & mortar are higher than those of bricks & clicks in 63 per cent of the cases, but are lower than those of pure players in 81 per cent of the cases,” says Sadegh Shahmohammadi, one of the study’s authors. “What is surprising is that the range in the carbon footprints is very wide… which implies that a large potential for improvement exists.”

Emissions for storage at the distribution centre, transport to the shop/mail sorting office, delivery and disposal of packaging were included in the three shopping models. ‘Upstream’ emissions produced by the manufacture of the items were not included.

Read more about carbon emissions:

The study also identified ways that consumers and retailers could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions for each type of shopping. For example, bricks & mortar shoppers could reduce their footprint by 40 per cent by walking or cycling to shops. Further reductions could be made by ‘trip chaining’ – making the visit to the shops part of a larger journey, such as the drive to work.

Online consumers could help even more by foregoing express delivery, purchasing as many items as possible from a single retailer and choosing to bundle their purchases into one delivery, rather than having each item dispatched as soon as it’s ready.


There’s advice for pure play online retailers too. They could cut emissions by 26 per cent by switching from petrol/diesel vehicles to electric cargo bikes for the final stage of the goods’ journey (from local distribution centres to consumers’ homes). More emissions could also be cut by locating warehouses closer to customers, although the current trend shows average distances are increasing by 0.31km per year.

Reader Q&A: What is the carbon footprint of the internet?

Asked by: Carol Lennox, Bromley

Connecting together all the world’s smartphones, laptops, desktops and other gadgetry, the infrastructure of the internet uses a lot of energy, and that in turn gives it a hefty carbon footprint.

According to a study by the Boston Consulting Group, the internet is responsible for roughly one billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, or around two per cent of world emissions.


Before going freelance, Rob spent almost four years on staff at BBC Science Focus magazine subediting news, features and reviews. He's now a freelance journalist and has written about everything from electric cars to decomposing bodies… although space and speed are what fascinate him most.


Sponsored content