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In a report that is not necessarily great news for brick-and-mortar retailers, results of a Carnegie Mellon Design Institute study estimates that e-commerce retailers use less energy — click here to read. Further, the study found that e-commerce retailers could claim a carbon footprint that was a third smaller than their brick-and-mortar brethren.
This is certainly an argument that was made by Nau founders when the company, now owned by Horny Toad, first launched to much fanfare and some raised eyebrows — click here to read the SNEWS® story, “The time is ‘Nau’ for new concept in retail.” Nau claimed that by building its business on a foundation of stores that had small footprints, and encouraged customers to purchased items on the web or even in the store to have it shipped, the overall environmental impact was less than a traditional brick-and-mortar model. Now, it appears, science is backing up that claim…to a point.
To conduct the study, researchers used a test case of purchasing a flash drive either in a brick-and-mortar store or via the web. Buy.com was the e-commerce site, giving researchers open access to data that might otherwise be considered confidential — data center info, energy consumption info and delivery details.
To create a comparison, researchers made the assumption that a consumer shopping at a brick-and-mortar store drove approximately 14 miles roundtrip, buying on average three items per trip.
By comparison, a UPS or FedEx delivery truck certainly uses a significant amount of fuel and energy, but spreads it out by delivering numerous packages, meaning less energy per package than a traditional shopper.
E-commerce data centers and computers use much less energy compared to a traditional store, giving them a strong edge there, too.
Of course, a shopper that walks, rides a bike or picks up many more packages during a single trip starts to swing the data points in favor of brick-and-mortar stores. Researchers also made it very clear that Buy.com cannot be compared with an e-tailer such as Amazon or Backcountry.com, since it uses a virtual model where it warehouses nothing and instead has products shipped directly to buyers via its distribution partners.
And all those overnight shipping upgrades? Well, that swings the pendulum of energy savings well into the camp of the brick-and-mortar business.
No mention was given to packaging, which in an e-commerce model is an Achilles’ heel, generating far more packaging to ship one item than a brick-and-mortar store does by receiving multiple products in one box.