The environmental downsides to mail order

During the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about my shopping habits. I tend to do most of my shopping with local retailers, but I also do a fair amount of mail order. Some of this mail order is for items which I can’t get locally (for instance the item is rare and made in a remote location), but the vast majority of these items are either stocked locally or can be special ordered by a local retailer.

When people talk about shopping locally they usually cite the benefits to the local economy and the personalized service that one gets from smaller retails who are focused on a specific region. These issues are big and have been the primary draw for my local shopping over the past few years. For instance my wife and I buy most of our music from a small music store called The Landing. It has a small number of employees and one of the two owners are often there. The owners live in our neighborhood and so much of the money gets spend here again. They know our musical tastes and make musical recommendations when we shop there and stock the types of music that we like. We can listen to any CD that we’d like on their customer listening stations (a couple of CD playerswith high quality headphones). All of these things make the shopping experience very enjoyable and are more important to me than price (although I think that their prices are competitive). I have similar relationships with my video store, bike shop, grocery stores (although my primary grocery store is a national chain), farmer’s market, and other places that I shop day to day. These are the obvious benefits of local shopping and ones that are commonly discussed.

Another option for me to buy CDs would be shopping with Amazon. Amazon also provides a reasonably nice shopping experience due to the reviews available on their website. I can’t listen to as much of the music as at my local record store, but I can listen to 30 second selections of most tracks. When I buy from Amazon some of the money is going back into my greater community (but this is only true because both Amazon and I are located in Seattle), but it isn’t going into my immediate community. I don’t get the personal attention from Amazon that I get from my local record store,although they do have software that tries to make it feel like I’m getting personal attention. The prices are about the same because Amazon’s prices are cheaper,but I have to pay shipping (or wait a long time).

One of the big differences in shopping with Amazon vs shopping at The Landing are how items are delivered. They both have the same selection (because The Landing can special order items from the same distributors that supply Amazon). However when I order a CD or two from Amazon they come direct to my house. When The Landing orders a CD for me it comes in a box with dozens of other CDs to the store.

Shipping 25 CDs to a single store and having 25 people pick them up from the store has a smaller environmental footprint than shipping 25 CDs to individual houses. The packaging per CD is much smaller when you pack 25 of them into one box than when you use 25 boxes, one per CD (especially with Amazon packaging which tends to use much larger boxes than necessary). A UPS truck delivering 25 CDs to a business requires a single stop where delivering to 25 residences typically requires 25 stops. If the shop is in a commercial area (as The Landing is) then it probably can make a single stop to deliver packages to multiple stores. It is less common that multiple neighboring houses will receive packages on the same day. A UPS truck may take a couple of hours (idling or running the whole time) to deliver packages to those 25 houses.

Some of this gets even more interesting when you look at purchasing more unique items from retailers that are far away. In an extreme example I could decide to purchase Ortlieb bicycle panniers from an east coast shop (because they are slightly cheaper). The distributor is located in Kent, WA (about 20 miles south of Seattle). The panniers are made in Germany. So if I purchased the panniers from an east coast shop they would travel from Germany to the distributor in Kent, then back to a shop on the east coast, and finally back to me in Seattle. Those panniers would have travelled well over 10,000 miles before ever being used and 6,000 of them would be inside my own country to save a small amount of money. In the greater scheme of things I think that it is more beneficial for myself and my community if I am less price conscious and more aware of the route that the item takes to get to me.

I’d love to have numbers on how much fuel is consumed in the shipment of a single package by ground across the country. I’d also like to know what percentage of package deliveries are going to businesses vs homes. It might be possible to estimate the extra fuel consumption for mail order packages using this data.

If anyone knows of any more detailed analysis in this area please let me know. I’ll follow-up here.


  1. miles says:

    What about the energy used transporting the end user to the store ? While you and I will probably ride there, most everyone else in the us will probably drive to the store which would seem to negate the benefit.

  2. Phil says:

    “Shipping 25 CDs to a single store and having 25 people pick them up from the store has a smaller environmental footprint than shipping 25 CDs to individual houses.” This is wrong– you have to take into account that most people, unlike yourself, are going to drive to the store. This accounts for the vast majority of pollution, even if the item does travel 10k miles.

    When a delivery truck brings it to your house, the “environmental cost” is the marginal difference between having done the delivery and not. If you live in a dense community (like we do), it’’s rarely more than a couple of blocks driving distance, and it’’s usually only the 2 minutes the driver has to stop and drop off. The less dense a community gets the more expensive it is, but most companies try to do the most efficient routes between stops as they can, since gas costs them money. It’’s therefore at least as efficient as driving to the store individually.

    I”d love to see an emperical study on this too.

    I like to buy local at shops from people I know and trust, and think it’’s actually a better deal in the long run. For instance, my supermarket usually has prices on it’’s wine about $1 less than the local shop. However, if I get one bottle in ten that’’s either bad to begin with or handled poorly, then it’’s a wash. I”m sure it’’s the same case with you local music shop– have they ever recommened anything that was just terrible?

  3. Dirtpedaler says:

    It’’s a quandary wrapped in an enigma. Just thinking about your cd example, I”m not sure it’’s right. Perhaps those 25 customers (or 24 since you”d ride your bike, right) driving to the store to pick up their cds would make a bigger ecological footprint than the UPS truck that’’s already in your neighborhood that day.

    I”d love to hear more about how it all shakes out.

  4. Joe Broach says:

    It’’s fairly shocking just how efficient long-haul ground freight is. The most comprehensive study I”m aware of is from the CBO (summary and link to full: The study included energy use for propulsion, manufacturing, and infrastructure for each mode. It’’s from 1982, but I don”t believe truck efficiency has changed much since then.

    Anyway, they estimate energy use of intercity trucks to be 41 ton-miles per gallon of diesel fuel equivalent. So, a 5 pound (0.0025 ton) package from the east coast to Seattle (3000 miles) would consume about 1/41*.0025*3000 gal of diesel fuel equivalent or about 1/5 of a gal of diesel equivalent (someone will check my math, but I think that’’s right).

    The energy used seems absurdly small, but I”ve tried to figure it out from the other end using UPS’’s fuel surcharge, and my results were very close (about 1/4 gallon for the same trip), so I think it’’s in the ballpark. The distribution at either end may actually be more important, energy wise!

    So, one answer to your question is: shipping a 5 pound box of panniers from seattle to east coast and back may require less than 1/2 gallon diesel fuel equivalent. Rail would be somewhat less. Air maybe much more. And, I would also guess a UPS truck is at the lower end of the efficiency range for freight loads (compared with, say, grain or coal).

  5. Richard says:

    This sounds like the discussions I have with myself, usually silently in my head. There are certainly a lot of variables to consider. One of the benefits to mail order is the used market which Amazon has done a fair job enabling. The ability to give a used book or CD a second life for just a few dolors is great. I”d like to think it is environmentally better as well, especially since the used sellers tend to not over package the shipment.

    I haven”t yet decided if shopping mail order to save money is always bad. If I am able to save significantly though mail order and then spend the money I saved locally is that okay? What if the savings is spent on a local service instead of another consumed good?

  6. jim g says:

    Alex, interesting post. One thing I”d add to the mix is, when that CD is delivered to your local store, how many of the people who might buy that CD then DRIVE to the store? Assuming most of those people drive to the store, how does that balance against a single UPS truck delivering CDs to each person instead? I don”t know the answer, but it does complicate the equation…

  7. Larry Leveen says:

    On the flip side, if you get stuff MAILED to you, instead of sent by one of the many freight carriers it piggybacks with the nearly daily trip a postal carrier is making to your house. You”d almost think that UPS would have trouble staying competitive with that.

    Yet a different side: with the world getting so impersonal, it’’s nice to go into a store and have people know your name and tastes. Locally-owned/operated stores run circles around bigger places in that regard.

    These two ideas (eco-footprint and service?) seem to collide with Netflix (as I understand it — I don”t subscribe to it). While I”m guessing that they don”t know you from Adam, the vids come in the mail, and prevent probably thousands of car trips every day. Gotta acknowledge that, IMO. Then again, those car trips to a video rental place could (shoulda?) been bike trips, and we all could use the exercise. Maybe we”d have interactions along the way that would make life just a little less impersonal.

  8. AlexWetmore says:

    A lot of people commented on those who drive to the store. I had thought about that too, but didn”t put anything into the blog post.

    In a neighborhood CD store (especially one in a walkable neighborhood like my own, and located right next to a major grocery store) I expect that most people going to the CD store were already stopping in this neighborhood for another reason. Next time I”m in the shop I can ask the owner if that perception is valid.

    If a CD buyer had already come to this shopping area to buy groceries then there is no extra environmental impact for walking across the street to the CD store.

    I”m also looking at this for a cyclists viewpoint and writing it on a blog where most of the readers are cyclists. In our community there is no question that picking up the CD from the local store by bicycle has a smaller footprint than having it shipped to my house.

    The argument might not be valid in a suburban setting where everyone drives everywhere.

  9. christian says:

    One other option I consider when thinking about this stuff is having mail order items shipped to me at work (not an option for everyone, but many people who work at medium–large companies do have this choice). UPS/FedEx/USPS show up at work every day anyhow. I show up every day anyhow. If it’’s not an enormous item, I can take it home on my bike. What I don”t know is whether UPS would come to work every day if people weren”t always having personal stuff shipped to them.

  10. Lee says:

    Interestingly, even though I like to support local businesses for a variety of reasons, I think the ecological footprint is misleading. Especially with modern internet logisitcs, now your east coast retailer will never even touch the product – they just drop ship it directly from their distributor to your door. All they do is take their thin margin for providing information and managing billing and end-user logistics.

    The real trade-off that happens is that I believe UPS/Fedex/etc. (and the distribution networks built on top of them) see more fully the costs of this sort of behavior. A local record store may not think much about how to minimize the individual fuel expenses of 25 customers coming to their door, but you can bet that Amazon and UPS want to make sure their bottom line (fuel cost included) is absolutely minimized in sending 25 CDs out through the mail. The key is making sure that environmental externalities of shipping are getting counted in their calculations – whether that means additional taxes on fuel or other ideas.

    Of course, the number one way to help out is to buy less crap. Then they don”t have even have to ship the raw materials, much less the finished product. For music and videos especially they need to get this ridiculous DRM escapade over with and finished.