Is E-Shopping Harmful to the Environment?

Is E-Shopping Harmful to the Environment?

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by Kim Dolgin – Everyone knows how e-commerce has taken off in recent years, not just in the United States, but globally. More than half of U.S. purchases are now made electronically, accounting for 9% of all the dollars that consumers spend. (Big-ticket items remain more likely to be bought at a bricks-and-mortar store.) These amounts are increasing rapidly, and since younger folk are more likely to make purchases on their phones or computers, the upward trend seems likely to continue or accelerate.

The question is: is this good or bad from a carbon-emission perspective? The answer is quite complex and depends upon the assumptions you make in doing your calculations. For example, how far do you assume a buyer travels to get to the retail store? What kind of car are they driving, or are they biking? Have they bundled their trips so as to make several purchases? Researchers from MIT’s Center for Logistics and Transportation have studied this question and have calculated the carbon costs for different types of shoppers. Traditional shoppers – those who do all their examining and purchasing in stores – emit on average of 3.1 kg. of carbon dioxide going to and from stores on each visit, including those made to exchange goods (a surprisingly high percentage of trips). In addition, the store they visit expends carbon by needing to have lights on and from packaging their goods in appealing ways (such as by having plastic windows so the merchandise can be seen). Cybernauts, who account for about 12% of U.S. shoppers, do all their buying online and incur carbon costs because their products must be delivered, because of the IT infrastructure they support, and because of excess packaging when items are mailed. Still, per purchase on average they produce only about half the carbon emissions as Traditional Shoppers. Modern Shoppers are the most common type, a hybrid of the other two: moderns go to stores to examine merchandise and then ultimately buy online. As you can imagine, this is the worst of both worlds, for these shoppers incur all the costs associated with travel, delivery, and excess packaging.

Unfortunately, the environmental cost of e-shopping is getting worse, largely because so many more shoppers opt for guaranteed two-day delivery. Mega-retailers such as Amazon, Walmart, and Costco entice shoppers by letting them choose rapid two-day delivery, often at no cost, and even same-day delivery. Choosing these speedy options negates the carbon advantage of pure e-shopping, because companies must make additional, less optimally-routed trips with partially empty vehicles to ensure speed, so more trucks are driving more miles. These swift-turnaround times also increase the likelihood that products will travel by air as well as by land.

Fortunately, it is becoming more common for e-retailers to let patrons select slower delivery service. Some even offer an incentive for you to do so. For example, the last time I waived the free two-day delivery that I receive for being an Amazon prime member, I was offered free slower delivery, and a discount on a future digital purchase was thrown in. The company is also trying out a new feature, Amazon Day, which will let you select a single day each week when all your week’s purchases are bundled and delivered together. This option also reduces packaging and lowers the risk of theft if you opt for delivery on a day you will be home. (And, of course, the company will save money).

With more and more types of items available online, and more and more companies offering expedited shipping, it becomes ever more important to consider the environmental effects of e-commerce.  Next time you buy with a click, ask yourself if you really need that new lawn ornament by the day after tomorrow. If you can wait a little longer, you will be doing a small bit to help reduce carbon pollution.