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Published on December 10th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


Spend, Ship, Save the Planet: Online Shopping

Many eco-minded shoppers feel that getting gifts online is a great way to green their shopping because digital transactions reduce our paper usage and shoppers themselves are not burning any fossil fuels.

But, like so many things in our complicated lives, it’s not that simple!  Far too often the online purchases we make create a greater carbon trail than that associated with driving to a local retailer.  Let’s look at some green shopping resources, carbon-related questions, and online security considerations . . .

General Resources

Browse for green products at the sites below:

  • Gaiam, items for eco homes, yoga practice, and green living
  • Greenloop, green fashion, accessories, and personal products
  • Green Nest, eco home products for indoors and outdoors
  • Our Green House, green products for a safe and healthy home for eco kids
  • Viva Terra, eco gifts for home furnishing, food, and fashion

General Guidelines

Great eco gifts often dwell halfway around the world and sometimes online shopping is your only access to these treasures.  In this case, first try looking for similar, locally made items in order to support your local craftspeople and cut back on shipping emissions.

Here are three questions to ask yourself before you select the “submit order” button:

How many miles is the item being shipped?

  • If you’re ordering online, chances are you aren’t ordering from a local company, which means your purchase will be shipped by air freight and then by truckShipping to your door.
  • Beyond the shipping miles from merchant (or warehouse) to you, also consider how far the item was shipped from manufacturer to merchant.  Airlines and truck traffic are some of the worst polluters on the planet, so carefully consider how much your purchase contributes to this.

Many items appearing at local malls and vendor shops have also been shipped from far away.  Consolidating shopping into one or two local trips can provide a way to significantly reduce travel emissions.  Traveling to one or two places to get 30 items can be much lighter on the planet compared to having 30 online-ordered items shipped straight to your door.

How many people or locations will be handling your purchase?

  • While providing jobs for more people is a great thing, a package that changes hands through many interim warehouses and shipping terminals contributes to duplicated and wasted resources used to build and maintain each facility.  In turn, this potentially devalues various benefits available to each employee.

How much and what type of packaging will be used?

  • Think about how much packaging you will have to recycle—including the catalogs and packing slips that are enclosed.

All of this considered, ask yourself if the most earth-friendly thing to do involves online shopping or planning a local trip that allows you to combine several purchases and errands.  Buying locally—especially if you purchase locally made goods that have little or no packaging for disposal—could be vastly better for the planet than shopping online.

Secure Online Shopping

For as long as online shopping has been around, concerns have been raised about identity theft and unauthorized purchases made with stolen credit card numbers.  While identity theft is most frequently conducted through mailboxes and on-site merchants, high-profile security breaches make it clear that you can never be too cautious when using credit cards online.

Here are a few online shopping security tips:

  • Use secure payment options such as PayPal, Google Checkout, or BillMeLater whenever available.  These payment systems shield your account informationShopping Online through an extra layer of encoding and security.
  • Beware of scams.  Several “phishers” send coupons via email as a simple way to gain access to your account numbers and personal information.  If you’re interested in a special offer, go directly to the merchant’s Web site—if the offer is legitimate, it should be listed there.
  • Always look at address bar of any Web site that you visit.  If it is secure, the address should include an “s” (https).

Understand that “secure” sites can still be fraudulent sites.  What makes a site secure is a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate, which puts a tiny padlock icon in your browser window.  SSL certificates encrypt communications between two points (i.e. consumer and merchant).  There are four levels of SSL certificates issued by Certificate Authorities:

  • Self-validated, where applicants issue them to themselves
  • Class 2, where applicants’ URL is checked against WHOIS database to verify ownership of the domain
  • Class 3, where the applicant’s operational existence is verified
  • Extended Validation (EV SSL) certificate, which also checks an applicant’s legal and physical existence

Keep in mind that there is no way to know what level of certification a merchant has except that EV SSL sites will shade the browser bar green.

Online shopping can be an eco-friendly way to reduce your carbon trail this holiday season.  To ensure that this is the case, consider the amount of gifts you’re purchasing and determine if one or two local trips may be the most eco-smart way after all.

Get the Green Living Ideas book in softcover or PDF for as low as $2.99!

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