Life cycle analysis is a “systematic approach of looking at a product's complete life cycle, from raw materials to final disposal of the product. It offers a 'cradle to grave' look at a product or process, considering environmental aspects and potential impacts.” (Life Cycle Analysis: A Step by Step Approach, 2009, Aida Sefic Williams). When comparing emissions of e-commerce versus traditional retail, getting a product to the consumer is just one part of the puzzle. There’s also what happens before delivery, especially inventory logistics and packaging. I’m going to cut to the chase: e-commerce beats traditional retail hands-down. Here are a couple quotes. First from Life Cycle Comparison of Traditional Retail and E-commerce Logistics for Electronic Products: A Case Study of

“Our results confirm prior findings that e-commerce delivery uses less primary energy and produces less CO2 emissions than traditional retailing. Considering retail and e-commerce logistics differences, the three largest contributors were customer transport, packaging, and last mile delivery. Customer transport encompassed approximately 65% of the traditional retail primary energy expenditures and CO2 equivalent emissions on average. For e-commerce, packaging and last mile delivery were responsible for approximately 22% and 32% of the e-commerce energy usage, respectively. Overall, e-commerce had about 30% lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions compared to traditional retail using calculated mean values.”

In the picture is worth a thousand words department:

CO2-Retail vs E-Commerce
CO2-Retail vs E-Commerce

And this from The Environmental Impact of Online Shopping: Nitty-gritty by Anna Argyridou, in which the author compares online and traditional book buying. Her conclusion:

“…The bottom line? Unless you’re walking or biking to the bookstore, buying a book online results in lower carbon emissions than purchasing it from a traditional bookstore. Light-duty delivery vehicles operated by companies like UPS and FedEx travel well-designed routes that serve multiple consumers in a minimum of trips, achieving fuel economy higher than that of a typical individual consumer driving alone to make the same purchase.”

So I say: buy online when possible. Yeah, there’s a certain community feeling of buying stuff at Mrs. Smith’s shop (though I’ve never been that sentimental about the shopping experience, which for me and many people has been more impersonal wandering of malls and superstores than sharing a moment with the neighborhood store clerk). If social bonding with acquaintances is what you’re looking for, there are alternatives, such as cafes, restaurants and YMCA classes – which you’d be better able to afford with the savings made possible through online shopping.