Shop 'till we drop: a historical and policy analysis of retail goods movement in the United States

Environ Sci Technol. 2012 Sep 18;46(18):9813-21. doi: 10.1021/es301960f. Epub 2012 Sep 4.


The movement of retail goods is central to modern economies and is a significant-but understudied-fraction of our overall energy footprint. Thus, we propose a new category for energy analysis called Retail Goods Movement (RGM) that draws its boundaries around the portion of freight dedicated to retail goods and the portion of driving dedicated to shopping. Historically, the components of RGM have not enjoyed policy priority. However, the net payoff from energy research and policy directed at RGM may now be high enough relative to other options to deserve increased investment. We combine a quantitative decomposition of the dynamics of RGM energy use with a qualitative discussion of what trends could have contributed to them. The RGM sector's energy use grew from 1.3 EJ (2.8% U.S.) in 1969 to 7.0 EJ (6.6% U.S.) in 2009. The major drivers were increases in population, freight tonnage (before 1990), distance freighted per tonne and driven per shopping trip (after 1990), and weekly shopping trips per household (before 1995). RGM energy intensity increased per capita (180%), per constant dollar GDP (60%), and per retail expenditure (140%). Finally, we describe policy recommendations that could become the basis of a sound RGM resource plan.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Family Characteristics / history*
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Policy Making*
  • Transportation / economics*
  • Transportation / history*
  • United States