TCS Daily

It's Flex Time

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 30, 2005 12:00 AM

A while back, I suggested that encouraging online shopping might be one way to promote energy conservation. Shopping online saves energy -- you don't drive from store to store, and the delivery vans that deliver packages to hundreds of customers per trip are surely more energy-efficient than having those customers all drive out to pick up their packages.

According to the El Paso Times, with online shopping taking off this Christmas season, we're already seeing online merchants offering one solution to high (if now falling) gas prices: Free shipping:

"Free shipping with conditions, such as a minimum order, is this holiday season's most popular promotion for online retailers nationally, a survey by and Shopzilla found."

It's too early to see how that's affecting people's shopping habits, but I can tell you that free shipping in general has had a substantial effect on mine. Back when it was new, I signed up for Amazon's "Amazon Prime" free-shipping program, and I noted not much later that it had changed my everyday shopping habits considerably. Things that I wouldn't have bought before, because of shipping charges, I buy now because doing so is easy and with no shipping charge. And every time I do that is a time that I don't get into my car -- however efficient -- and burn gas. We should probably be trying to encourage more people to do that sort of thing.

As I wrote in my earlier column: "If even a modest percentage of grocery-shopping runs, for example, were replaced by internet shopping and home delivery, gas consumption would be substantially reduced -- particularly as I suspect that the early adopters would tend to be the people facing the longest drives."

So what's the larger lesson from this?

If we're serious about saving gas -- and we should be, even though the temporary spike in prices caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has pretty much passed -- then we need to look at the big picture. More efficient cars would be nice (I bought one) and other technological changes that make energy consuming devices more efficient would probably do some good, too.

But many things that save energy aren't so obvious, and many policies that help or hurt aren't so obvious, either. (North Dakota's hassling of internet auctioneers won't help energy efficiency, but I'll bet that the North Dakota legislature hasn't given that much thought). In fact, beyond the specifics of the Internet and free shipping, the single biggest aid to energy conservation is probably technological and economic flexibility, because that lets people reorder their lives in ways that seem most efficient to them, without the burden of complex regulation or inflexible infrastructure.

Looking at things this way, the demands for more regulation in order to save energy seem backward. Perhaps instead we should start looking for things to deregulate, to make shopping, shipping, and otherwise doing business more flexible, and more efficient.

Glenn Reynolds is author of An Army of Davids.


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