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Eco-Economics of Christmas: What Does the Data Say?

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For the last couple of years, our family (okay, my wife!) has predominantly done our Christmas shopping online. This saves the massive hassle, and huge amounts of angst, of having to go into our nearest large town, during peak trading at the weekend, to do the Christmas shopping.


Picture this: it’s a Saturday afternoon in mid-November, and I’m having to go through the town to take my son to a birthday party.  Inevitably, we get stuck on the ring-road in a huge traffic jam, for well over an hour. The traffic is blocking the entire one-way system – it’s caused by the shopping centre car parks overflowing. Everyone’s on the road, playing Santa.

As I sit in grid-lock, I thank god for online shopping. It’s this level of stress – and this lack of movement! – that has made online Christmas shopping so prevalent. Just think how much time and energy it saves us…


In light of the Climate Change Conference in Paris a few weeks back, however, something my wife said got me thinking. She reported that she had ordered and received, by the end of November, about 15 separate Christmas purchases delivered to the house, by separate couriers. Each in its own brown box or packaging (don’t get me started on ‘wrap rage’!).

Is that better for the environment than the alternative “one-stop” (albeit stressful) Christmas shopping experience in a shopping centre?

Usually, the “eco-friendly” economics of home delivery works well. When the purchases are fairly irregular and are spread out over the year, the occasional buying of specific “presents” for home delivery at least “offsets” the carbon footprint of driving to the shopping centre: one journey has replaced another.

At best, a full delivery van going to lots of different houses in one single journey can be significantly more energy efficient than many individuals driving to the shops.

Now, there have been many articles written on the eco impact of home delivery in the UK.  Some argue in favour and some against (although the more scientific approaches generally support an environmental benefit to home delivery.)

Most of these articles, however, appear to be fairly old and don’t investigate any altered behaviour in relation to the time of year. Because at Christmas, shopping changes.

Does the economic advantage of online shopping change with the seasons?

Tis The Season to be Shopping

If everyone else is doing the same as our family and having 15-20 deliveries for individual online purchases – can that be more energy efficient than going shopping and buying everything in one go?

Okay, our energy might be sapped, but Christmas is the one time of year when many individuals are buying for countless others, simultaneously. A single trip could, therefore, actually be better for the environment than many small ones.

Let’s look at the data.

There are many factors and variables that must be taken into account if we are going to calculate the impact. So I am going to assume:

  • 20 deliveries of Christmas present purchases per household
    (based on our current family “run-rate”)
  • 2 items per delivery
    (assuming a total of 24 presents per household – once you have factored in uncles, aunts, cousins, godchildren and so on….)
  • First-time delivery rate of 90%
    (In other words; there is no going back to the depot due to failed deliveries)
  • 50 mile round trip, with 50 packages in the delivery van, per journey
  • That it is 15 miles to your nearest Shopping Centre
  • That you need two shopping trips to get all your presents if you do everything in-store

For the purposes of our calculations, I have also assumed that the energy/CO2 efficiency of all vehicles is the same.  I have likewise assumed that everyone is driving and not using eco-friendlier transport: trains, tubes or buses. I have also assumed no traffic jams!

Now, there are some significant caveats to this. The biggest one is probably the number of packages per van trip. Certainly, this might typically be higher that my estimation, but I have seen many delivery drivers turning up in small vans, or even cars, which suggests that the sheer volume of deliveries over peak trading increases the number of drivers used (instead of increasing the number of parcels per van). Christmas seems to reduce the number of items per delivery trip. Indeed, if this variable were to get much lower, energy efficiency levels would nosedive too.

The second major assumption in all of this requires us to believe that there is no cross-over: that those who shop online do so exclusively, and so do those who shop offline.

The reality, of course, is much more complicated: I know I’ve been on shopping trips with the kids, just to get out of the house, or to get inspired about what to buy (even if I subsequently order the items online.) So I accept that there is some inevitably flawed logic in this, but ultimately we behave irrationally.

I also accept how middle-class, 2.4 children, Home Counties/semi-urban all of these assumptions are (before you write in), and I’m not suggesting this is a definitive model. It’s merely a calculation.

What Does the Data Say?

However, with all of this, my calculation still suggests that home delivery is more eco-efficient over Christmas than buying everything in store (just). It delivers a “mile per present delivered” measure of 1 – compared to that is in-store shopping which comes out at 1.25.

Of course, that’s only if we behave rationally, and if the delivery vans are loaded well.  In reality, it’s likely that they are pretty much even. Then it simply comes down to the convenience that home delivery provides. That’s where the home delivery proposition starts to win hands-down.


It is interesting that there are companies that are starting to talk about combining deliveries – either of that of different companies or of different business units – to improve home-delivery for its customers.

Imagine, for instance, your Christmas present orders turning up with your grocery shopping. From a customer point of view, that’s an amazing idea (provided that everything actually turned up correctly). It would produce a considerable amount of operational risk for companies that offered that service, but if those challenges were overcome you’d be able to deliver a truly seamless Christmas shopping customer experience.

This kind of service would help to build long-lasting consumer relationships – a customer is for life not just for Christmas. What’s more, just think how much data you’d have at your disposal…

From an eco-friendly point of view, it’s also revolutionary.  Suddenly, you could have a genuine one-stop shop, and that would significantly reduce carbon emissions, no matter what variables you look at.

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