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How to buy clothes sustainably, online and in-store


Ways to reduce your environmental impact, however you shop

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


Go to a physical store; online shopping with several delivery options; clothing rental; Swap them: These days it can feel like there are 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. But you can make decisions that will help reduce your impact, however you choose to shop.

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

The transport involved in delivering the garments to consumers typically 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 reduce greenhouse gas emissions by changing the way you get your clothes, such as looking at how you get to a store, the price of shipping you choose and how often you return things.

Here’s what you need to know.

Both online and in-store shopping involve transportation that can produce emissions that contribute to global warming.

For most physical operations, businesses must move clothes from warehouses to stores, and then consumers make trips to and from those stores, often in gas-guzzling cars. Meanwhile, online retailers typically ship goods to fulfillment 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 have never had a distribution system in history like the one we have today, in which we can order whatever we want and it will be reliably and cheaply at your doorstep,” says Miguel Jaller, co-director of the Sustainable Freight Research Program at the University of California, Davis. “It comes with pros and cons.”

Research suggests that ordering online may have a lower carbon footprint than shopping in person for the same reason that public transport is often better for the environment than cars. Similar to a bus full of passengers, says Jaller, a single van delivering multiple packages to a neighborhood is more efficient than people jumping into their cars, driving elsewhere to get groceries, and then taking what they buy home.

A model analyzing the behaviors of Dallas and San Francisco residents found that exclusive online shopping could lead to an 87% decrease in vehicle miles traveled and associated emissions, according to a 2020 paper.

But Jaller, co-author of the paper, says his findings and other studies are often based on specific scenarios. The environmental and climate impacts of how you get clothes can change 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 by public transit to another place where everyone drives a big SUV,” Jaller says, adding that emissions can also depend on businesses, for example if a retailer ships items. over longer distances or distributing more locally, or if they use electric delivery vehicles.

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Studies often show that in-store shopping can produce more emissions than online ordering because people tend to drive to stores. But if you decide to walk, cycle or take public transport, “it is at least very intuitive to assume that the overall advantage that the internet presents will also decrease”, explains Josué Velázquez Martínez, director of the Sustainable Supply Chain Lab in Massachusetts. Institute of Technology.

Opt for slower shipping and consolidation

The potential environmental benefits of e-commerce largely stem from retailers having enough time to fully load delivery trucks before sending them out, says Velázquez Martínez. “Trying to consolidate deliveries is key.”

There is, however, a major problem: people who order online generally want their items as soon as possible.

“Quick shipping can really create a huge mess in all of this,” says Velázquez Martínez. Choosing an earlier delivery date may mean that your item is transported by air, which emits huge amounts of CO2. Trucks making these quick deliveries are unlikely to be full, and drivers could make multiple trips to your neighborhood on the same day.

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

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

Shahmohammadi recommends consolidating orders instead of receiving separate deliveries. Ideally, he says, try to buy multiple items from the same vendor “to reduce your footprint per delivery.”

Bundling orders could also help solve the packaging problem of online shopping, says Ting Chi, a professor and chair of the department of apparel, merchandising, design and textiles at the State University of China. Washington.

Split deliveries can lead to boxes that aren’t full and extra packaging, which isn’t always recycled, Chi says. “Combining orders into one package would make better use of box or container space.”

In-person shopping can also benefit from a type of consolidation known as “trip chaining,” or when you can add more activity to an outing, Shahmohammadi says. You can incorporate a stop to buy clothes on your way home from work or if you are already running other errands.

“If you can chain your trip and then link it to other activities, that might reduce the share of fingerprints tied to your clothes,” he says.

Another disadvantage of online shopping, especially for clothing, is the increased likelihood of returns. A study by a German clothing retailer published in 2012 noted that the company reported a 35% return rate for online sales. Study researchers estimated that 6-10% of items sold in the retailer’s physical stores were returned.

The higher return rates for clothes purchased online are not surprising. Online shoppers cannot physically try on clothes and often have to rely on sizing guides that may differ from brand to brand. Liberal policies that allow people to send items back for free to exchange or receive a full refund 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.

Not only can the frequency of returns cause a “tremendous amount of environmental damage” due to transportation emissions and extra packaging, but returning items can also put a strain on businesses, Chi says. “Every time we see a return, they have to assign their employees to inspect the returned items for integrity or quality.”

Returns, he says, “could easily outweigh the benefits we receive from shopping online.”

Customers can reduce orders by minimizing uncertainty, experts say. Read customer reviews and reviews, and if that’s an option, give virtual try-ons a try. Online retailers can help by providing improved customer service and more accurate sizing information, adds Chi.

Experts also recommend taking steps to reduce the risk of failed deliveries, because when the truck has to repeat attempts to deliver your package, it contributes to emissions.

One option is to have your items delivered to the store or a parcel pick-up point near you. Beyond eliminating the risk of delivery failure, it reduces a retailer’s carbon footprint if packages are sent to a central location rather than multiple homes. But keep in mind that distance and your personal transportation can make a difference.

“If you have to walk a long way to a pick-up point, that could also be a problem,” says Velázquez Martínez.

While experts note that clothing rental, which has grown in popularity in recent years, also has emissions associated with transportation since clothes are regularly shipped back and forth, the practice may be more environmentally friendly than d buy something new. The benefits, however, largely depend on how you use the clothes, says Velázquez Martínez.

Buying basic pieces that you’ll wear until they wear out might be better for the environment than renting, he says. But for those special occasions when you only wear an outfit once, “renting, by far, is better.”

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