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Even Overnight, the Net Saves Over Driving it Yourself, But Ground Shipping is Six Times More Efficient than Air

E-commerce often relies on energy-thirsty transportation modes like overnight air delivery. When clothing retailer Patagonia did an energy "lifecycle" analysis of its clothing, managers discovered that with traditional shipping, transportation accounted for six percent of the total energy needed to create and deliver its product. Using overnight mail raised that figure 28 percent. But even that is better for the atmosphere than running out to get it yourself. Better still is to wait a few extra days and ship it by ground transport.

A 20-mile round-trip by car to purchase two five-pound items uses about one gallon of gasoline. Shipping those packages 1,000 miles by truck - as an Internet retailer might - consumes just one tenth of a gallon (much less, if railroads carry the packages for part of the journey). Shipping the packages by air consumes nearly six tenths of a gallon. That's still less than driving to the mall, but it is six times the energy use of ground shipping.

Ordering on the Internet vs. Going to the Mall:
Fuel Consumed Moving Two 20 lb Packages

Fuel Consumed:
20-mile Round trip to shopping mall 1.0 gallon
1,000-mile shipping, by truck0.1 gallon
1,000-mile shipping, by plane0.6 gallon

In both consumer and business e-commerce, the mode by which goods are shipped makes a huge difference. Water or rail use 400 to 500 BTUs per ton-mile. Shifting to a truck boosts that figure four- to five-fold, to more than 2,000 BTUs per ton-mile. Putting that same freight on a plane increases energy use dramatically, to 14,000 BTUs per ton-mile.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Truck Driver

The important message in these statistics is that consumers can maximize the energy and environmental benefits of e-commerce by choosing the slowest delivery mode that circumstances allow. Christmas shopping over the Internet for gifts that were going to be shipped anyway can also save a substantial amount of energy and air pollution.

For instance, if you live in Virginia and buy a Christmas gift online for a relative in California, the "e-tailer" might be able to ship it from a West Coast warehouse or supplier, saving both personal and business transportation. The biggest environmental benefit occurs for gifts (or other e-commerce purchases) that do not have to be shipped by air freight, since that is the most energy-intensive form of shipping. The Center for Energy & Climate Solutions calls e-commerce choices that maximize energy savings and environmental benefits "eee-commerce."

Trend is Growing Stronger

Early analysis suggests that Internet shopping is largely substituting traditional retail shopping, rather than augmenting it. Internet retail experts at Jupiter Communications say just six percent of 1999 online commerce represents incremental sales that would not have occurred otherwise. In March 1999, the online marketing research firm, Greenfield Online reported that "39 percent of those with access to the Internet say they go to the store or mall less often now that they can easily shop for and buy a wide variety of products online." That means trips are already being avoided.

Over the next few years, the Internet will increasingly provide alternatives to a large quantity of traditional errands. Internet banking and other financial services are expected to see sharp growth. Many services that provide grocery shopping over the Internet are planning significant expansions over the coming year, including Webvan, HomeGrocer, and Peapod.

Internet Errands Save Pollution, Congestion

Avoiding errands by using the Internet can save considerable energy and pollution. A minute spent driving to the store uses more than ten times the energy of a minute at home, shopping online. Moreover, your home uses most of its energy whether you're in it or not. That means the incremental energy benefit of spending an extra minute online rather than traveling likely exceeds 12 to 1.

The Internet may also reduce the congestion associated with urban sprawl. According to Harvard Business Review, in one AT&T unit, the typical alternative work participant "gained almost five weeks per year by eliminating a 50-minute daily commute." That's five weeks a year that the car is parked in the driveway, rather than on the freeway.

Telecommuting reduces commuting transportation, and research shows that the reduction is not reversed by an increase in other trips. In fact, two large U.S. studies showed the total travel savings are actually greater than commuter travel savings alone, which implies that non-commute travel actually decreases as a result of telecommuting.