How Ecommerce is Cutting Down Shopping’s Carbon Footprint

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Of all the conveniences the 21st century has to offer, online shopping has to be one of the best. From computer, tablet, or smartphone, in just a few clicks, you can order anything from armchairs to zebra-print neckties and have it sent straight to your house. But more orders means more delivery trucks, and more delivery trucks means more greenhouse gases, right? Well… not exactly.

How Ecommerce is Cutting Down Shopping's Carbon Footprint

CO2 emissions associated with retail and ecommerce product pathway stages.
Image source: Anna Argyridou
(via Stanford University)

The concerns over CO2 emissions and digital logistics aren’t unfounded. On the surface, the logic does make sense: more deliveries means more vehicles that contribute to the ever-increasing global warming crisis. The assumption is if people just went out and bought things rather than have orders (often containing only a handful of items at a time) delivered to them directly, their smaller vehicles should be preferable to the big diesel-guzzling trucks shipping companies use. It turns out, however, that customers and their best intentions might actually be causing the problem.

A number of recent studies have shown that ecommerce is actually better for the environment than physical retailing. Vehicle size and order quantity aside, the issue revolves around what folks in the logistics business like to call the “last mile.” Regardless of actual distance, success and sustainability are maximized when in the hands of trained professionals. Comparing experienced delivery drivers and logistics experts to everyday customers and casual motorists, the reason for ecommerce’s smaller footprint becomes a little clearer.

But does ecommerce really make that much of a difference?

From Point A to Z (and Everywhere in Between)

Image source: Zingtrak

Now before you sell your car and swear off going to the store in-person for good, there are still some cases where physical shopping is better than going online. For instance, if you’re within walking or biking distance, the only CO2 emissions you’ll have to worry about is how much panting you’ll do hauling yourself over on foot. But as a Stanford University alumna recently published, delivery trucks will beat out taking your car almost every time:

“Unless you’re walking or biking to the bookstore, buying a book online results in lower carbon emissions than purchasing it from a traditional bookstore. Light-duty delivery vehicles operated by companies like UPS and FedEx travel well-designed routes that serve multiple consumers in a minimum of trips, achieving fuel economy higher than that of a typical individual consumer driving alone to make the same purchase.”

While it might contradict some of our sensibilities, the logic behind this observation is sound. If, for example, you and three of your neighbors each frequented a single grocery store 5 miles away, that’s a combined total of 40 miles traveled both ways. If the grocery store delivered to you and your neighbors in a single truck, however, the mileage is cut down to 10. If two more of your neighbors wanted to drive separately, that’s another 20 miles for a total of 60; the truck would still have gone about 10 — give or take a few extra feet to get to each house on the block.

It’s important to note that this rule doesn’t apply to all distances. Another study found that short-distance ecommerce orders are on-par with the carbon emissions for physical shopping. As distance increased after a certain point, online orders’ emission levels remained the same while those of in-store customers skyrocketed:

“Researchers [in Germany] surveyed over 700 in-store shoppers at two locations and 40,000 online orders. They then stratified their results based on travel distances to the store and distances from the warehouse to the customers’ homes. At short-distances–less than 8.5 miles or 14 km one-way–in-store shoppers slightly edged out online customers per transaction, about 73.8 g CO2 vs. 77.9 g CO2. But over that, online shoppers’ footprints remained relatively stable while store goers emissions skyrocketed to as high as 451.4 g CO2 per transaction if they had to travel over 62 miles (100 km).”

When trying to minimize environmental impact, it’s not just the miles that matter. A lot of it also comes from the amount of goods being shipped at once.

Making It Count

According to the study in Germany, those driving to the store beyond eight and a half miles would have to buy up to 24 items to make the trip equal to the carbon footprint of ordering just one item online. If you took the bus, the study estimates you’d have to buy only eight things instead. Going back to our earlier example, if you and your neighbors all carpooled to the store instead of taking separate vehicles, you’d have as much carbon emissions as you did leg room (not much).

Even if retailers continue finding sustainable logistics methods to better combat greenhouse emissions, a third study points that a lot of the weight rests on customers: “in the traditional shopping model, customers do most of the labor-intensive work (such as order-picking and transporting goods home) whereas in e-fulfillment, retailers must deliver personalized orders to highly disperse locations within relatively narrow time windows.”

Where one driver (the average customer) is hindered by commuter traffic, spur-of-the-moment shopping runs, and frequent rerouting, delivery drivers rove up and down the streets quickly and efficiently like it was their job. Unless you can compete with the best in the fleet, you’re doing yourself (and others on the road) a service by letting the trained professionals handle deliveries. But that’s just the beginning.

With the passage of new commercial drone laws in the United States earlier this year to the increase of ship-from-store retailing trends; from educating people on the importance of sustainability and coming up with creative solutions to combat global warming (like turning carbon dioxide into stone). We’re on the right path to start negating (and reversing) some of the damage we’ve done to the earth.

At least you can rest soundly knowing you’re doing Mother Nature a small favor when you order that new whatever online — unless, of course, the store that’s selling it’s within a stone’s throwing distance. Then it’s probably best to get out and enjoy the fresh air on your walk. It’s good for you anyway.


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