How to shop for clothes sustainably, online and in-store

Ways to curb your environmental impact, regardless of how you shop

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


Go to a physical store; Online shopping with multiple delivery options; rent clothes; swap them: These days it can feel like there’s an overwhelming number of ways to get your hands on more clothes. But which option is best for the planet?

The answer, experts say, is complicated. However, no matter how you shop, you can make choices that will help reduce your impact.

“I think it’s not very easy to say, ‘Okay, buy online or go to the store,'” says Sadegh Shahmohammadi, data scientist at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research. “It’s really hard to say if one is better or the other better, so it’s not really a solution for everyone.”

The transportation associated with delivering clothing to consumers generally accounts for a smaller portion of a garment’s overall environmental impact than how it is made and cared for. Still, Shahmohammadi and other experts say it’s possible to cut greenhouse gas emissions by changing the way you get your clothes — for example, how you pay attention to how you get to a store, what shipping costs you choose, and how often to give things back

Here’s what you need to know.

Online and in-store shopping both involve modes of transportation that can create climate-warming emissions.

For most brick-and-mortar operations, businesses need to transport clothing from warehouses to stores, and then consumers drive to and from those stores, often in gas-guzzling cars. Meanwhile, 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 items.

“We’ve never had a distribution system in history like we have today where we can order anything we want and it will be reliable and cheap at your doorstep,” says Miguel Jaller, co-director of the Sustainable Freight Research Program at the University of California at Davis. “That brings with it some advantages and disadvantages.”

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Research suggests that ordering online can have a lower carbon footprint than personal shopping for the same reason that public transport is often better for the environment than cars. Much like a busload of passengers, Jaller says, a single delivery truck delivering multiple packages to a neighborhood is more efficient than people getting in their cars, driving elsewhere to shop, and then carting what they buy home .

A model analyzing the behavior of people in Dallas and San Francisco found that solely shopping online could lead to an 87 percent reduction in vehicle miles driven and associated emissions, according to a paper published in 2020.

But Jaller, who co-authored the paper, says his findings and other studies are often based on specific scenarios. The environmental and climate impacts of how you receive clothing can change significantly depending on a variety of factors.

For one thing, cities can be very different. “You can’t compare a place where people access goods and malls and shop on public transit to another place where everyone drives a big SUV,” says Jaller, adding that emissions can also depend on companies , e.g. B. whether a retailer ships items B. over longer distances or more local distribution, or if they use electric delivery vehicles.

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Studies often show that shopping in-store can cause more emissions than ordering online because people tend to drive to stores. But if you decide to walk, bike, or use public transportation, “it’s at least very intuitive to assume that the overall benefit that the internet offers will also go down,” says Josué Velázquez Martínez, director of Sustainable Supply Chain Lab at the Massachusetts Technological Institute.

Opt for slower shipping and consolidation

Much of the potential environmental benefits of e-commerce come from giving retailers enough time to fully load vans before shipping, says Velázquez Martínez. “Trying to consolidate supplies is key.”

However, there is a big problem: people who order online usually want their items as soon as possible.

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“Fast shipping can really mess up all of this,” says Velázquez Martínez. Choosing an earlier delivery date may mean that your item will be transported by plane, which emits enormous amounts of CO2. The trucks making these quick deliveries aren’t likely to be full either, and drivers can make multiple trips to your neighborhood in the same day.

Experts say online shoppers should choose slower shipping options whenever possible.

“In general, everyone involved in logistics and supply chains agrees that it is always better to deliver one, two or three days longer,” says Velázquez Martínez. More time for deliveries makes planning, inventory replenishment and distribution “much more efficient, which in turn reduces the amount of fuel and energy you need to serve your customers.”

Shahmohammadi recommends bundling orders rather than receiving separate shipments. Ideally, he says, try to buy multiple items from the same supplier “to reduce your footprint per shipment.”

Consolidating orders could also help address the packaging problem with online shopping, says Ting Chi, professor and chair of Washington State University’s Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles.

Separate shipments can result in underfull boxes and extra packaging that isn’t always recycled, says Chi. “Consolidating orders into one package would make better use of box or tote space.”

Personal shopping can also benefit from a type of consolidation known as “journey chaining,” or when you can add other activities to an excursion, Shahmohammadi says. You could build in a stop to shop for clothes on your way home from work or while you’re already running other errands.

“If you can chain your trip and then link it to other activities, it could reduce the percentage of footprints associated with your clothing,” he says.

Another disadvantage of online shopping, especially when it comes to clothing, is the increased likelihood of returns. A 2012 study by a German clothing retailer found that the company reported a 35 percent response rate for online sales. The study researchers estimated that 6 to 10 percent of items sold through the retailer’s brick-and-mortar stores were returned.

The higher return rates for clothes bought online are not surprising. Online shoppers cannot physically try on clothes and often have to rely on sizing charts, which can vary from brand to brand. Liberal policies that allow people to return items for an exchange or a full refund for free make 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.

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Not only can the frequency of returns cause “a tremendous amount of environmental damage” due to the added emissions of transportation and packaging, but sending things back can also be a burden on businesses, says Chi. “Every time we see a return, they have to assign their staff to inspect the returned items for integrity or quality.”

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

Customers can reduce ordering effort by minimizing uncertainty, experts say. Read customer comments and reviews and try virtual fittings if possible. Online retailers can help by offering improved customer service and more accurate sizing information, Chi adds.

Experts also recommend taking steps to reduce the likelihood of failed deliveries, as repeated attempts by the truck to deliver your package contribute to emissions.

One option is to have your items delivered to the store or to a parcel collection point near you. Aside from eliminating the risk of failed delivery, having packages sent to a central location rather than multiple homes also lowers a retailer’s emissions. However, remember that distance and your personal transportation can make a difference.

“If you have to drive far to a pickup center, that can also be a problem,” says Velázquez Martínez.

While experts point out that renting clothes, which has grown in popularity in recent years, is also associated with transport emissions as garments are regularly shipped back and forth, the practice can be more environmentally friendly than buying something new. However, the benefits depend largely on how you use the clothing, says Velázquez Martínez.

Buying basic pieces of clothing that you wear until they’re worn out might be better for the environment than renting, he says. But for special occasions where you might only wear an outfit once, “renting is far better.”

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