Is it more sustainable to buy online or from a bricks-and-mortar store? The results of a comprehensive new study show that the real world is preferable – especially if you go shopping with friends and engage in more than one activity at a time.

The new study, conducted by Deloitte Consulting, shows that shopping at a mall has a seven per cent smaller environmental impact than online shopping.


Does Shopping Behavior Impact Sustainability? uses shopping data that represents customer behaviours using a “cradle-to-grave” life cycle analysis that examines the environmental impacts of all material, energy and fuels attributable to a product in its lifecycle, assuming the consumer purchases the same basket of goods online as they would in a brick-and-mortar location.


Previous studies comparing mall and online shopping have mostly compared emissions from buying one item from one channel versus the other. This study creates a realistic representation of shopping behaviours and tests the dependence of the results on variables.

Factors on how a basket of products, distances traveled to the mall, how many people travel together, other stops during a trip to mall shopping, and product returns were built into a more holistic analysis.

“The difference in the environmental impact of shopping at physical stores versus online rests on a number of factors,” Jason Mathers, senior manager – supply chain logistics at the Environmental Defense Fund, said.

“As this paper makes clear, consumer choice about the number of items purchased, the likelihood of returns and the ability to combine trips can help make shopping in-person the lower impact choice.”

Additional findings from the research show that:

  • Traveling to the mall in groups lowers the environmental impact per product bought. The average mall shopping group size is 2.2, and when people travel together and buy more products per trip, the average fuel burned to buy each product is lower.
  • Shopping online leads to more returned products, which considerably increases the environmental impact. The data shows that 33 per cent of online purchases are returned versus seven percent in the case of brick-and-mortar.
  • Packaging for online orders (corrugated boxes, bubble wraps) have a larger overall environmental impact compared with the impact of a plastic/paper bag consumers bring home from the mall.

Emissions are also reduced:


The report was released by The Simon Property Group, which owns a string of malls across the world. Mona Benisi, the company’s senior director of sustainability, said: “In an age when consumers are increasingly demanding same day or fast delivery, which requires more resources and fuel to fulfill, the negative impact of online shopping is likely to worsen. This study underscores how the choices consumers make when shopping impact the environmental footprint and may influence future behaviours.”

This report follows on another report released by the Simon Property Group in January and titled Death of Pureplay Retail, which found that online-only retailers (also known as “pureplay retailers”) were disadvantaged by the high cost of marketing and shipping, making their business model unsustainable in the long-term.


It found that online retailers leveraging physical store locations – called “evolved retailers” drove higher organic site traffic and lower customer acquisition costs while elevating brand awareness across multiple channels.

Of course, visiting real stores also means you meet people and is a more pleasurable social experience than shopping alone online.

So if you’re thinking the high street is going to die out any day soon – think again. Reports of its demise may have been exaggerated.

David Thorpe is the author of:

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  1. Unfortunately neither the article above or the linked report contain any of the actual methodology details, or the research results into the “realistic representation of shopping behaviours” which the model is based on. (And there is no link from the 6 page summary by Simon Property to an actual research report branded by Deloitte!) so it’s difficult to know what the results are really based on…

    For example, it’s interesting that based on the lifecycle diagram, they appear to assume that products ordered online are flown from a distribution facility to the local sorting facility but that all products in a mall arrive there by road.

    When a mall company publishes a report saying malls are more sustainable, and they don’t publish the methodology, assumptions or foundation research report, then all I have is questions!

    Rather than trying to ‘win’ a binary debate between physical and online shopping using particular assumptions of behaviour and supply chains, more useful would have been expanding Table A4, to show which are the most sustainable behaviours out of all the various combinations, ie.
    * online shopping, 1 person 4 products, 0 returns
    * mall shopping, 2.2 people, 4 products, 0 returns
    * online shopping, X-Y products, 1 returns
    * online shopping, X-Y products, 2 returns
    * mall shopping, A-B, people, X-Y products, 1-2 returns
    Oh well!

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