In May, eCommerce giant Amazon raised the bar (and consumer expectations) once again by announcing that Prime subscribers would soon enjoy free, one-day shipping on millions of items. Amazon's move quickly inspired competitors to take action. Walmart logged onto Twitter to mock their Seattle-based rival. Rather than saving one-day shipping for members, the retailer revealed it would offer the privilege to all shoppers.
The race between retailers has taken the average purchase-to-delivery cycle time from 5.2 days to 4.3 over the last two years. Averaging just 3.2 days, Amazon still outpaces even its most ambitious peers. For consumers, this competition has made online shopping more convenient than ever. In addition to quickly assessing and comparing a host of options, they can now receive their products in just a matter of hours.
Writing for CNN Business, Lydia DePillis examines the environmental costs of this convenience. These costs, she suggests, are still mysterious to a majority of U.S. consumers.
eCommerce can, in theory, prove more environmentally friendly than traditional shopping. A truck traveling to a number of houses on a single route will produce fewer emissions than a collection of homeowners making independent trips. DePillis cites a 2012 study from the University of Washington's Anne Goodchild which found that "grocery delivery can cut between 80% and 90% of carbon emissions." Unfortunately, these benefits become diluted and ultimately disappear as items come from farther away on less forgiving schedules. Amazon's style of delivery, Goodchild remarks, is less like consolidating resources and more like "basically paying someone to make a trip for us."
While eCommerce could have paved the way for a greener, more efficient approach to logistics, lately it's done just the opposite. In 2017, UPS revealed that a surge in online purchases had led to fewer deliveries per mile. In a worst case scenario, DePillis writes, a truck might make one delivery per trip. This would mean mean releasing 35 times the carbon emisisions that a fully-loaded truck would. While uncommon, these situations are not unheard of. Specialty last-mile courier services like Amazon Flex deal almost exclusively in small loads.
Amazon has suggested that its scale mitigates both the financial and environmental costs of faster shipping. DePillis quotes a company spokesperson, "Prime Free One-Day is possible because we've been building our network for over 20 years." Miguel Jaller, co-director of UC Davis' Sustainable Freight Research Center, offers only faint praise to Bezos and company. In his opinion, the company is "less environmentally bad than others," but still far from environmentally friendly. Amazon's recent investment in 20,000 vehicles, for example, suggests the organization is not fully committed to providing both quick and environmentally-friendly shipments.
That's not to say that Amazon has done nothing. In an effort to promote efficiency, Amazon now offers customers the option to set an "Amazon Day." This allows the user to consolidate their deliveries to a single day of the week. Additionally, they provide incentives to users who opt for "no-rush shipping."
DePillis encourages eCommerce companies to provide additional "nudges" in order to promote more responsible consumer behavior. A nudge, she writes, "[brings] the power of guilt and social norms to bear on decision making." Nudges could include eye-opening reminders and statistics at check-out. An MIT study has already found that 52% of Mexican eCommerce consumers will opt for slower shipping when reminded that they could be saving trees.
Consumers are interested in doing business with responsible, environmentally organizations. They're also interested in presenting themselves as responsible actors who pride the greater good over their own personal convenience. Organizations like Amazon have an opportunity to leverage these desires without offering additional economic incentives. For example, DePillis says, they could "put slower-shipped boxes in a different color." This would allow consumers to send a message to their neighbors and, ideally, pressure them into taking similar action.
Assessing the true environmental impact of eCommerce is still an inexact science, but it's clear that 'free shipping' is more costly than most shoppers would like to believe. Consumers and corporations alike will need to change their behavior to avoid leaving planet Earth with the bill.