Holiday Gifts: Is it Better to Ship or Schlep?


Even in an economy like today's, the holiday season means shopping, though the wish lists might be pared down while the sale radar is turned up high.

A perennial question for the eco-conscious is whether to schlep or ship.

Do you take your car to the mall, along with a few thousand others, and send your spouse or teenager to do the same next weekend, and finally pop around town the weekend after that to pick up the odds and ends that the mall didn't have? Or do you curl up at home with slippers and hot cocoa, surf the Internet and let UPS or the postman do the heavy lifting?

All in all, my pocketbook leans toward schlepping, while the environmentalist in me thinks shipping is the best way to avoid throwing extra emissions into the air.

Consumer Reports recently tested the price and dependability of FedEx, UPS (and the Postal Service for overnight, second-day and ground delivery. It spent from $10 to $74 to ship a five-pound box across the country.

The Postal Service has priority mail rates below $5 if what you are shipping fits in an envelope, but for anything that goes in a box, you're probably hitting Consumer Reports' $10 starting point for ground delivery. And who wants that?

Sure, you can have things sent the cheap, slow way and hope your swag arrives in time, but most of us won't take that chance. We'll pay for overnight or second-day delivery and hope Web retailers aren't padding shipping fees too much.

So unless you manage to do all of your holiday shopping at a single Web site or buy enough to qualify for free shipping on every site you visit, shipping fees will probably add up to more than the cost of a full tank of gas. And unless you drive a Hummer or you really have a lot of errands, your family can probably do its shopping on less than one tank.

If you want to conserve gas (and gas money) while shopping, organize a single holiday-shopping trip to the mall for the whole family.

As for those miscellaneous errands, do what UPS does. Make a list and map out the most direct and least congested route for a one-time excursion. If you really want to be as gas-conscious as Big Brown, map a route that cuts down on gas-guzzling left turns. After a full day, head home for cocoa.

From an environmental standpoint, there's some debate. Grist's Umbra points out that products bought in stores gobble up less packaging than the individual boxes full of styrofoam popcorn or bubble wrap that we get from Amazon, the Web site of Gap and so on.

But fuel efficiency favors the Internet.

Here's why: As the Postal Service points out on its Web site, it's on your block six days a week anyway, often using foot power or, at the very least, trucks that have regular routes. So letting Uncle Sam do your schlepping doesn't add more emissions into the atmosphere. Same with UPS. FedEx and DHL seem less omnipresent in residential areas, but if they put in a daily visit to your workplace, consider having stuff shipped there and keep your conscience clear.

Shipping is an incredibly fuel-intensive business, of course, which is why none of these four organizations rate more than a 45 out of 100 from Climate Counts.

But they've all been working to become more fuel-efficient. They use computerized mapping for their trucks and discourage idling. They figure out how to move the most boxes with the least amount of fuel on their planes and trucks. And they're rolling out alternative-fuel vehicles in limited numbers around the country.

FedEx is going with hybrids (though not as quickly as it hoped to), while UPS has vehicles that run on biodiesel, propane, compressed natural gas and electricity. Even the Postal Service has a fleet of trucks that use ethanol.

UPS will, on occasion, park its large trucks in central places and send deliveries out on cargo bikes or small electric vehicles that are easier to park and to navigate around small or congested streets (and use zero gas).

Of course, despite your best efforts, the greenest way to shop is not to. This is also the most financially efficient way to shop. So the eco-conscious penny pincher in me is considering just staying home this year and baking cookies with whatever I have in the pantry.

Oatmeal-raisin, anyone?




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