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)

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Going to a physical store; online shopping with several delivery options; renting clothes; swapping them: These days it can feel as though 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. But you can make decisions that will help reduce your impact, regardless of how you choose to shop.

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

The transportation involved in delivering clothes to consumers generally makes up a smaller part 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 ways you get your clothes — such as looking at how you get to a store, the shipping rate you opt for and how frequently you return things.

Here’s what you need to know.

Online and in-store shopping both involve transportation that can produce climate-warming emissions.

For most brick-and-mortar operations, companies need to move clothes from warehouses to stores and then consumers make trips to and from those shops, often in gas-guzzling cars. Meanwhile, online retailers typically ship goods to distribution centers before delivering them directly to consumers, or dropping 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 anything that we want and it’s going to be reliably and cheaply at your doorstep,” says Miguel Jaller, co-director of the Sustainable Freight Research Program at the University of California at Davis. “That comes with some pros and cons.”

Research suggests that ordering online can have a smaller carbon footprint than in-person shopping for the same reason that public transportation is often better for the environment than cars. Similar to a bus full of passengers, Jaller says, a single van delivering multiple packages to one neighborhood is more efficient than people hopping in their cars, driving elsewhere to shop and then carting what they buy home.

One model analyzing the behaviors of people in Dallas and San Francisco found that exclusively online shopping could lead to an 87 percent decrease in vehicle miles traveled and related 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 get clothes can change significantly depending on a variety of factors.

For one, cities can be vastly different. “You cannot compare a location where people access goods and malls and shopping through public transit as opposed to another location where everyone drives a large SUV,” Jaller says, adding that emissions can also depend on companies, such as whether a retailer is shipping items over longer distances or distributing more locally, or if they’re using electric delivery vehicles.

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Studies often find that in-store shopping can produce more emissions than ordering online because people tend to drive to stores. But if you decide to walk, bike or take public transportation “it’s at least very intuitive to assume that the overall advantage that the online has is going to also drop,” says Josué Velázquez Martínez, director of the Sustainable Supply Chain Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Opt for slower shipping and consolidation

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

There’s one major problem though: People ordering online typically want their items as soon as possible.

“Fast shipping can really create a huge mess in all of this,” Velázquez Martínez says. Choosing an earlier delivery date might mean that your item is transported by airplane, which emits huge amounts of CO2. The trucks making these rapid deliveries also aren’t likely to be full, and drivers could be making multiple trips to your neighborhood on the same day.

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

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

Shahmohammadi recommends bundling orders instead of receiving separate deliveries. Ideally, he says, try to buy multiple items from the same supplier “so that it reduces your footprint for delivery.”

Consolidating orders could also help address online shopping’s packaging issue, says Ting Chi, a professor and chair of Washington State University’s department of apparel, merchandising, design and textiles.

Separate deliveries can lead to boxes that aren’t full and additional packaging, which isn’t always recycled, Chi says. “Combining orders into one package would better use the space of the boxes or containers.”

Shopping in-person can also benefit from a type of consolidation known as “trip chaining,” or when you can add more activities to an outing, Shahmohammadi says. You could incorporate a stop to buy clothes on your way home from work or if you’re already out running other errands.

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

Another downside to shopping online, particularly for clothes, is the increased chance of returns. One study of a German clothing retailer published in 2012 noted that the company reported a return rate of 35 percent for online sales. The study’s 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 is not surprising. Online shoppers can’t physically try on clothes and often have to rely on size guides that can differ across brands. Liberal policies that allow people to send items back for free to exchange or receive full refunds makes returns even more likely. As a result, many people tend to order more clothes than they would buy from a store, often in different sizes, and then return what they don’t like.

Not only can the frequency of returns cause a “huge amount of environmental damage” because of the added transportation emissions and packaging, but sending things back can also burden companies, Chi says. “Every time that we see a return, they need to assign their employees to inspect the returned items for integrity or quality.”

Returns, he says, “could easily offset those benefits that we receive from online shopping.”

Customers can cut down on ordering by minimizing uncertainty, experts say. Read customer comments and reviews, and if it’s an option, test out virtual try-ons. Online retailers can help by providing improved customer service and more accurate sizing information, Chi adds.

Experts also recommend taking steps to lower the chances of failed deliveries, since when the truck has to repeat attempts to deliver your package, this contributes to emissions.

One option is to have your items delivered to the store or a package pickup location near you. Beyond eliminating the risk of a failed delivery, it lowers a retailer’s emissions footprint if packages are sent to a central site instead of multiple homes. But keep in mind that distance and your personal transportation can make a difference.

“If you have to drive a long way to a pick up center, then that could also be a problem,” Velázquez Martínez says.

While experts note that renting clothes, which has increased in popularity in recent years, also has associated transportation emissions since garments are regularly being shipped back and forth, the practice can be more environmentally friendly than buying something new. The benefits, though, depend largely on how you use the clothes, says Velázquez Martínez.

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

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