How to shop for clothes the green way online and in stores | Popgen Tech


Ways to reduce your environmental impact no matter how you shop

(Video: Washington Post illustration; Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post; iStock)


Going to a regular store; online shopping with multiple shipping methods; clothing rental; Changing Them: These days it can seem like there are a huge number of ways to get more clothes. But which option is best for the planet?

The answer, experts say, is complex. But you can make decisions to help reduce your impact, regardless of how you choose to shop.

“I don’t think it’s very easy to say, ‘OK, buy online or go to stores,'” says Sadegh Shahmohamadi, a data scientist at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research. “It’s really hard to say if this is better or that, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

The transportation involved in getting clothing to the consumer is usually a smaller part of the total environmental impact of clothing than the way it is made and cared for. Still, Shahmohamadi and other experts say it’s possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by changing the way you get your clothes — for example, looking at how you get to the store, the shipping price you choose and how often you return items.

Here’s what you need to know.

Shopping online and in stores is associated with transportation that can lead to climate warming.

Most physical operations require companies to transport clothing from warehouses to stores, and then consumers drive to and from those stores, often in gas-guzzling cars. At the same time, online retailers typically ship goods to distribution centers before delivering them directly to consumers, or drop off packages at stores or other central locations where people can pick up their goods.

“Never in history have we had a distribution system like the one we have today, where we can order anything we want and it will be delivered safely and cheaply to your doorstep,” says Miguel Jaler, co-director of Sustainable Freight. Research Program at the University of California, Davis. “It has some pros and cons.”

Research shows that ordering online can have a smaller carbon footprint than personal shopping for the same reason that public transport is often better for the environment than cars. Like a bus full of passengers, Jahler says, one van delivering multiple packages to one neighborhood is more efficient than people getting in their cars, driving to another location to shop, and then taking the purchases home.

One model analyzing the behavior of people in Dallas and San Francisco found that online shopping alone could lead to an 87 percent reduction in the number of kilometers driven and related emissions, according to a paper published in 2020.

But Jaller, who co-authored the paper, says his findings and other research are often based on specific scenarios. The environmental and climate impact of how you get your clothes can vary significantly depending on a variety of factors.

On the one hand, cities can be very different. “You can’t compare a place where people access goods and malls and shop via public transport, as opposed to another place where everyone drives large SUVs,” Jaller says, adding that emissions can also vary by company. , for example, whether the retailer deals in goods. for longer distances or distribution more locally, or if they use electric delivery vehicles.

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Studies often find that shopping in stores can produce more emissions than ordering online because people usually drive to the stores. But if you decide to walk, bike or take public transportation, “it’s at least very intuitive to assume that the overall benefits of the Internet will also decrease,” says Jasue Velazquez Martinez, director of the Massachusetts-based Supply Chain Sustainability Laboratory. technological institute.

Choose slower shipping and consolidation

Velázquez Martínez says the potential environmental benefits of e-commerce mostly come from retailers having enough time to fully load delivery trucks before they ship. “The key is trying to consolidate supply.”

However, there is one major problem: people who order online usually want to receive their goods as quickly as possible.

“Expedited shipping can really make a big mess of it all,” says Velazquez Martinez. Choosing an earlier delivery date may mean that your item is being transported by an aircraft that emits a huge amount of CO2. The trucks that make these quick deliveries are also unlikely to be full, and drivers can make multiple trips to your area on the same day.

Whenever possible, experts say online shoppers should choose slower shipping options.

“In general, everyone involved in logistics and supply chain agrees that having one, two or three more days to ship is always better,” says Velazquez Martinez. More lead time makes planning, replenishment and distribution “much more efficient, which in turn also reduces the amount of fuel and energy needed to serve customers.”

Shahmohammadi recommends combining orders instead of receiving separate deliveries. Ideally, he says, try to buy multiple items from the same supplier “so it reduces your shipping footprint.”

Consolidating orders can also help solve the packaging problem of online stores, says Ting Chee, professor and chair of Washington State University’s Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles.

Individual shipments can lead to unfilled boxes and extra packaging that isn’t always recycled, Chee says. “Combining orders into one package will make better use of box or container space.”

Personal shopping can also benefit from a type of consolidation known as “trip chaining,” or when you can add more activity to a walk, Shahmohamadi says. You can include a stop to buy clothes on your way home from work or when you’re already running other errands.

“If you can connect your travel and then link it to other activities, it can reduce the footprint associated with clothing,” he says.

Another disadvantage of shopping online, especially for clothes, is the increased chance of returns. One study of a German clothing retailer published in 2012 noted that the company reported a 35 percent return on online sales. The study’s researchers estimated that 6 to 10 percent of items sold through brick-and-mortar retail stores were returned.

Higher return rates for clothes purchased online are no surprise. Online shoppers can’t physically try on clothes and often have to rely on size guides, which can vary from brand to brand. A liberal policy that allows people to send items back for an exchange or full refund for free makes returns even more likely. As a result, many people tend to order more clothes than they would buy in a store, often in different sizes, and then return what they don’t like.

The frequency of returns can not only cause “huge environmental damage” due to the added emissions of shipping and packaging, but shipping the items can also become a burden on companies, Chee says. “Every time we see a return, they need to assign their staff to check the returned items for integrity and quality.”

The returns, he says, “could easily offset the benefits we get from online shopping.”

According to experts, customers can reduce their orders by minimizing uncertainty. Read customer reviews and comments and, if possible, try a virtual fitting. Online retailers can help by providing better customer service and more accurate sizing information, Chi adds.

Experts also recommend taking steps to reduce the chance of failed deliveries, as having a truck make repeated attempts to deliver your package contributes to emissions.

One option is to have your items delivered to a store or parcel pickup location near you. As well as eliminating the risk of a failed delivery, it reduces the retailer’s emissions when parcels are sent to a central site rather than multiple homes. But keep in mind that distance and your personal transportation may matter.

“If you have to drive a long way to the feed center, that can also be a problem,” says Velazquez Martinez.

Although experts note that renting clothes, which has become popular in recent years, is also associated with transport emissions, since clothes are regularly transported back and forth, this practice can be more environmentally friendly than buying something new. The benefits, however, depend a lot on how you use the garment, Velazquez Martinez says.

Buying essentials that you’ll wear until they wear out can be better for the environment than renting, he says. But for special occasions, when you can only wear the clothes once, “rent is better”.

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