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E Commerce: Convenience at a Cost to the Planet

 
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Nearly everyone frequently uses Amazon or other online retailers and has replaced at least some of the traditional in store shopping with online purchases, in fact Amazon has about 244 million active users in the U.S.[1] Online shopping is a fast, easy way to get almost any specific thing a customer could want for pretty good prices, and often times it takes just a matter of days to arrive, Amazon Prime users even get free two day shipping. Many people are even beginning to purchase their groceries online. While people love the benefit of convenience provided by online shopping they probably do not think much of the overall effects that this huge movement has had on the environment. All that the customer really sees of online shopping is the end result, a package with what they ordered at their doorstep; the supply chain involved in getting that package to the customer however is very extensive. The two biggest environmental concerns associated with online shopping are the lack of sustainability in transportation and in packaging.

Transportation

For consumers, online shopping eliminates the need for a trip to the store; that may even seem like it could be good for the environment if individual consumers are driving less. This is not the case however, trucks are significantly less efficient than the normal cars that consumers would take to buy something from the store in person. Deliveries that in the past would have been made in bulk from warehouses to stores are now broken down into individual deliveries to homes and businesses when online shopping is used and this leads to significantly more time for trucks to be on the road. Transportation is the number one cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., contributing 29% to the total emissions, and due to both freight trucks and light duty trucks.[2]

Packaging

Once consumers open their packages and throw away, or hopefully recycle the waste, the packaging it is unlikely that they think about the effect it has. Anyone who shops online regularly is also aware that sometimes packaging can be excessive and, while sometimes maybe it is in an effort to protect items, unnecessary. Small packages fern come in larger boxes and almost all packages many air fill plastic pieces whether they are at risk for damage or not. Shipments from online shopping lead to significant amounts of both cardboard and plastic waste; with approximately 165 billion packages shipped annually, the U.S. uses the amount of cardboard equivalent to about 1 billion trees on shipping.[3]

While Amazon is an online retail giant that has succeeded in building up a large, loyal customer base, some people do not see Amazon in such a positive light. Amazon is infamous for poor working conditions in their warehouses, employees have come forward with stories that accuse Amazon of prioritizing the bottom line over their employees to the point of borderline abusive working conditions and their effect on the environment has been equated to a similar level of harm.[4] The fact of the matter is the public really does not really know how Amazon is affecting the environment because they have refused to release emissions data despite demand for reports of this data. Forbes claims that transparency in sustainability is a huge opportunity for Amazon and in an interview with Amazon’s Worldwide Head of Sustainability they found that AMazon claims to make efforts to be as sustainable as possible and has plans to improve their environmentally friendly efforts.[5] In fact, Amazon claimed sustainability boosting plans on multiple occasions, but without data to back it up it leaves the general public with an inability to know that these plans are genuine. Many people believe that Amazon’s refusal to release their emissions data means that they are either way off their sustainability goals and their emissions are bad enough to damage the reputation of the company.[6]

 Online shopping as it exists presently is not very sustainable, from packaging to the emissions caused by transportation of packages. Despite the current lack of sustainability in the online shopping world, there are ways to reduce an individual’s shopping carbon footprint:

●      If items can be purchased at a nearby store easily, take the time to go buy them in person instead of ordering online.

●      Choose online retailers that prioritize sustainability.

●      When ordering online order order multiple items that can be shipped together.

●      Do not use expedited shipping when not necessary, delivery is less consolidated when it needs to be expedited.[7]

Despite the fact that it may not currently be the most sustainable option for shopping does not mean that it has to stay that way; in fact, there are online many small shopping options that prioritize sustainability and some big name online shopping options are working to increase sustainability. With the growth of the electric vehicle industry and more automakers electrifying their vehicle lines, the probability of electric trucks will be the future of delivery vehicles. As consumers demand sustainability, companies are looking to meet those demands, that is why when it comes to packaging some online retailers have been their unnecessary packaging; even Amazon has claimed to be working on no longer boxing merchandise that can be sent in its existing box. Online shopping is a growing and sustainability is of growing importance to consumers so retailers likely will continue to increase sustainability in order to meet customer demands, until it is more sustainable it is important for consumers to become aware of the effects of online shopping in order to minimize any damage done.


[1] Kline, Daniel B. “How Many Customers Does Amazon Have?” The Motley Fool, The Motley Fool, 5 Oct. 2018, www.fool.com/investing/general/2014/05/24/how-many-customers-does-amazon-have.aspx.

[2] “Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 8 Aug. 2019, www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions.

[3] Bird, Jon. “What A Waste: Online Retail's Big Packaging Problem.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 29 July 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/jonbird1/2018/07/29/what-a-waste-online-retails-big-packaging-problem/#1a03b1b2371d.

[4] Kaufman, Alexander C. “Amazon's Environmental Record May Be As Bad As Its Work Culture.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 3 Sept. 2015, www.huffpost.com/entry/amazons-environmental-record-could-be-as-bad-as-its-work-culture_n_55e70360e4b0b7a9633aefa0.

[5] Murray, Tom. “Amazon's Big Opportunity: Transparency In Sustainability.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 2 Apr. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/edfenergyexchange/2018/04/02/amazons-big-opportunity-transparency-in-sustainability/#1a9a1a7f7c50.

[6] Li, Steven, et al. “Amazon Withholds Its Emissions Data from the Public (Again). What Does It Have to Hide?” The Rising - Covering How Changes in the Environment Impact Business, Technology, and Politics., 8 July 2019, therising.co/2019/07/07/amazon-withholds-emissions-data-from-public-again-what-does-it-have-to-hide/.

[7] Murdock, Andy, and University of California. “The Environmental Cost of Free 2-Day Shipping.” Vox, Vox, 17 Nov. 2017, www.vox.com/2017/11/17/16670080/environmental-cost-free-two-day-shipping.