Which is more sustainable: online shopping or shopping in bricks-and-mortar stores?

Construction of malls must have a colossal carbon footprint, and running online stores should be better, I think. On the other hand, the fact that you don't actually see the goods you buy increases the risk that it won't suit you and you'll ship it back (or it'll just have been manufactured for nothing, with all the associated carbon emissions). Those are just a couple of factors. Was there a comprehensive academic analysis on the matter?

  • Two additional factors: heating and air conditioning of malls has carbon footprint too. Also the car trip to a mall has a carbon footprint, although that can be minimized if using a bicycle. However, even a storage warehouse has a carbon footprint to construct, although I suspect storage warehouses have more stuff per cubic meter than a mall.
    – juhist
    Commented Aug 20, 2022 at 12:59
  • Possible duplicate question: Is buying online more sustainable than in local shop next door
    – THelper
    Commented Aug 20, 2022 at 15:29
  • 1
    Does this answer your question? Is buying online more sustainable than in local shop next door?
    – Fred
    Commented Aug 21, 2022 at 4:30
  • @Fred I did not ask about "a local shop next door". The latter is obviously more sustainable Commented Aug 21, 2022 at 11:02
  • I suggest you amend the title of the question if you are specifically asking about out-of-town shopping malls as opposed to local or city-centre shops.
    – John M
    Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 11:37

2 Answers 2


Probably the most important aspect is the "last few miles" transportation. Where I live, a shopping mall is 45 minutes drive each way. I tend to batch trips, doing several different kinds of shopping at once. If I order things online, the warehouse is much further from me, but the truck doesn't come all the way to my house with just my package, so that distance is in effect shared among all the packages being delivered near me.

If your mall is closer or further than mine, if you batch more or fewer kinds of shopping into each trip, and even if more or less of your neighbours are ordering from the same online sources as you (or from online sources that use the same courier) then which is more sustainable for you will likely be different than for me. There is no general answer.


Also there are many hidden costs in each scenario, and a variety of details which affect the calculation.

The most sustainable: buying local meaning items that a local store has sourced (presumably with the least negative impacts possible) or that a local business person has created locally; make that purchase by foot (walking), bicycle, or transit.

The least sustainable: buying items that are sourced from around the world (far distances from where you live) online, that travel via ship/train etc.. to get to the online entity's warehouse, and then are delivered to you by plane (possibly)/ vehicle etc.

There are many gradations and cost-aspects in between.

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