What is the Carbon Footprint of Your Holiday Shopping?

Have you ever wondered about the carbon footprint of your shopping habits? Is online shopping better for the environment than brick and mortar shopping? There are many studies on the subject and there are myriad factors to consider when answering these questions. To try and make this process a little easier, we have pulled together existing research and have developed a guide to reducing your carbon footprint this holiday season.

Image of Santa gifting coal

One 2013 study by MIT looked at the impact of online vs. in-store shopping for a few items (a t-shirt, a Barbie Doll, and a computer) and concluded that a few key factors can tip the scales in either direction. While this study ignored the impact of the embodied carbon of these items (more on this later), let’s look at the biggest factors that could contribute to your holiday shopping carbon footprint and factor into the store vs. online debate.

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Low-Carbon Concrete: Reducing the Embodied Energy of a Notorious Emitter

It is safe to say we are in a climate crisis. Of the last 17 years, 16 have been the hottest on record.[1] Sea level is expected to rise by as much as eight feet by the end of the century.[2] And by 2050, as many as 140 million people will have been displaced by climate change.[3] The time to act is now, and a major area of impact is buildings, which account for 40% of carbon emissions in the United States. Better envelopes, lighting, and mechanical systems are helping buildings become more efficient, which means an increasing proportion of carbon—up to 68% of a building’s lifetime emissions—is locked up in materials.[4] This “embodied” carbon gets released during a material’s extraction, manufacture, transport, maintenance, and, eventually, disposal.

If our industry is to meet the 2030 Challenge of carbon neutrality by the close of the decade, we will need to reevaluate building materials and select low-carbon alternatives.

Embodied carbon life-cycle

Figure 1: Courtesy of Faithful+Gould

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Innovations in Accessible Products

Our accessibility consultants are constantly on the lookout for improvements in product design that will make it easier for our clients to comply with accessibility criteria. As manufacturers become more familiar with accessibility requirements under applicable federal, state, and local regulations and building codes, a number of innovative, accessible products have emerged to make compliance simpler and more stylish.

Here are just a few examples of accessible products that we have been recommending recently…

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Arc – A Performance Approach

“What gets measured, gets managed” – Peter Drucker. This old management adage couldn’t ring more true in the world of sustainability.

The green building industry increasingly relies on the collection and analysis of data to inform a spectrum of building improvements, including monitoring and mitigating the impact of operations and management. The GBCI has embraced this new direction by developing and releasing a new online platform, called Arc, which collects, manages, and benchmarks building performance data as projects move toward LEED certification.

Screen shot of the Arc Platform

Screen shot of the Arc Platform

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The Adventures of Mo and Her No Mow Lawn

I always thought the phrase ‘about as interesting as watching grass grow’ conjured a vision of ultimate boredom. That was before I attempted to grow my own no mow lawn. It turns out that watching grass grow can be a roller-coaster of emotions: the angst of wondering whether my inability to precisely follow directions would matter… the excitement of seeing the first blades of green poking up… the anguish over bare spots… and the pride over healthy, lush sections.

No Mow Lawn 1

April 2015 – The lower tier is seeded; the upper tier wall-building is still in progress

For years I advised clients to consider no mow lawns in their green homes, but I had never seen the end product through a full cycle of seasons. Friends of friends who own a turf farm expressed their interest-slash-skepticism at my undertaking, which more or less echoed the sentiments of a whole stream of landscape architects before. “Sure, you could try no mow if you really WANTED to… ” A search of local nurseries turned up nothing available. I couldn’t figure out why something that sounded so ingenious wasn’t more popular! An internet search for “no mow grass” turns up Prairie Nursery in Westfield, WI as a major supplier. A colleague used their product, and they were extremely helpful on the phone, so I ordered the No Mow Lawn Seed Mix online.
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