With the opening of its first full-size, cashierless grocery store in Seattle, Amazon made one thing abundantly clear: it has solidified its position as a multi-industry king. Dominating the online, home technology, and now grocery marketplaces, Amazon has been the center of it’s fair share of praise and criticism. Perhaps the focal point of Amazon’s online shopping success is their fast, free shipping for members. Amazon isn’t the only industry leader offering increasingly-rapid shipping options as a way to stay competitive. Because these trends are on the rise, with no end in the forseeable future, this week’s blog post will address the carbon footprint of such expedited shipping options.
A 2013 study published by MIT estimated and compared the carbon footprints of both in-person buying and online shopping purchases. The study included various factors, including packaging, transportation, energy consumption, and information flow. As a result, the study touted online-shopping as the surprising environmentally-friendly alternative to brick-and-mortar shopping, based on numerous scenarios and the idea that “the main component of the [emissions produced by the] Traditional shopper is the customer transportation, whereas Cybernaut‘s emissions are linked to a parcel carrier, who uses an optimized delivery process.” (Weideli, 2013). This was not the case with expedited shipping options (overnight, one-day, two-day). To learn more, read the study here.
However, this blanket statement should not end your days of in-store shopping, as there are significant drawbacks to consider as well. First, the carbon footprint of these corporate shipping practices is enormous regardless, especially when using vans that are smaller than traditional freight vehicles (which require more trips to and from the inventory distribution center). There are also labor implications to consider; the manpower needed to facilitate such expedited shipping often results in less-than ethical working conditions. Buzzfeed conducted an investigation into this trend, and this is what they found. Vox has also found that with increasing shipping convenience, there has been a rising trend toward single-item purchasing. This increases shipping demands, and thus, environmental impacts. When online purchases show up the next day, it is tempting to order five items independently, rather than bundling them into one consolidated (read: less environmentally-strenuous) order.
The best way to reduce your environmental impact when it comes to all purchases, be it in-store or online, is to reduce how much you are buying in the first place. Reducing and reusing are the first steps in reducing waste and carbon emissions. Do you need to order that reusable grocery bag from the internet and receive it by tomorrow, or can you repurpose fabric scraps from around the house into a new bag? Being an informed, critical consumer is an excellent way to take action and make waves in the climate conversation.
This blog post has focused primarily on the environmental impacts of corporate malpractices, but there are lots of other resources with great information surrounding other points of controversy regarding the online shopping industry. EcoWatch writes more on the carbon footprint of shipping practices. The New York Post and Business Insider detail what a day in the life of a factory worker really looks like: overworked and underpaid.