Holiday season is upon us, and with it a near-constant inundation of sales, gift guides, and advertisements. Online retailers have started sales earlier than ever this year, and it’s literally impossible to go on Instagram without seeing a combination of organic and paid plugs for various online sales.
Online shopping is more convenient than ever, but that’s bad news for the environment. Think about the process of online shipping: consumers can choose from a wider selection of products than ever before (meaning they can and they do buy more), items are transported by boat or train typically to some sort of regional center or warehouse, then they are either transported via truck to yet another holding center or driven to their final destination. Each link in this chain requires air or water pollution and carbon emissions.
Did you know that 80% of the world trade volume is carried by sea? Maritime shipping is a crucial component of the global economy, and it also happens to enjoy a positive feedback loop with climate change. As sea ice melts, ships can navigate shipping routes more easily and quickly. And the more ships move, the more climate change worsens.
Global shipping already contributes to 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and emissions by shipping are expected to rise by 50-250% by 2050. Projected increases are made worse by the fact that there is no strong international regulatory framework for shipping emissions: shipping was actually excluded from the Paris Climate Agreement.
Now, shipping must take place whether we’re buying from a brick and mortar or e-commerce store, so the environmental impacts of maritime shipping can’t be separated between in-person and online shopping: they both contribute to emissions. Where online shopping breaks away, however, is ground transportation.
The transportation from delivery warehouse or holding center to your house is called “the last mile” in the shipping industry (even though it can be dozens of miles), and the last mile is typically the most energy-intensive stage of the shipping process.
When researching for this article, I was surprised to learn that online and in-person shopping can have comparable carbon emissions in theory—I’ll admit I expected online shopping to blow in-person shopping out of the park with its carbon emissions. But when you factor in the emissions that result from actually driving to the store, and maintaining a brick and mortar, the two actually generate comparable emissions. At least in theory.
What theory forgets to account for though, is the inefficiencies of online shopping—about one-fifth of products purchased online are returned, which greatly increases the carbon footprint of the item. 12-60% of home deliveries have also been found to fail the first time, and shipping vans often need to go to the same house two or three times to deliver a package, which also increases carbon emissions.
Rushed delivery is the worst for the environment
The research showing that online shopping is comparable to in-person shopping compares standard shipping to in-person shopping. But with the rise of Amazon and free two-day (or even sometimes one-day!) shipping, expedited shipping is more popular than ever.
Expedited shipping means that delivery companies must use vans (and sometimes planes!) that are less full than they would be if you waited a little longer for your order, which increases the emission per item. Manufacturing technology researcher Dimitri Weideli claims that speed delivery nearly triples the footprint of online shopping.
In a study comparing the carbon emissions of in-person, standard, and rushed shipping, rushed shipping was found to have the greatest carbon emissions by far. Rushed shipping also prevents retailers from consolidating orders into as few boxes as possible and choosing the most efficient delivery routes, both measures that can decrease the impact of online shopping.
How can we make online shopping more environmentally friendly?
It’s important to note that online shopping can actually be greener in theory—even with expedited shipping—if we have the right technology in place. Electric cars will greatly bring down the emissions (of both carbon dioxide and other air pollutants) associated with online shopping. This article explores other technologies—like drones, bikes, and ride sharing for delivery—that could also bring down delivery’s impact.
While we’re still waiting on electric transportation vehicles in the shipping sector, however, the best thing you can do is refrain from rushed delivery. It’s also important to consider transportation to an in-person store—research showing that online and in-person shopping generate comparable emissions relies on estimates from suburban shoppers that must travel over 10 miles to reach a store. If you live in a city and can walk, bike, or take public transportation to do your shopping then in-person shopping may have the lowest footprint for you.
Have a wonderful holiday season!
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