Over the few years, shopping has been made easier, by just a single click, a truck heading into your area will deliver your latest gadget, fashion garment or even a single fiction book. Online retailers insist that their methods of delivery are greener- much better than having to drive yourself to your favorite store. Is this true?
These questions are really important, for the climate. Online shopping accounts for one in seven retail purchases worldwide. In fact, its value as of 2019 stands at an estimated us$3.5 trillion, a figure that rises every day.
One question that has never crossed our minds- how much of the total carbon footprint of what we buy is attributed to delivery? Whether your last purchase came from a Chinese cheese factory, Alibaba express, Jumia or even a cosmetic shop around the corner- transport from the store or warehouse to home likely dominates the delivery footprint.
How much of the total carbon footprint of what you buy is attributable to delivery varies hugely? But wherever your latest purchase comes from — whether a Chinese factory or a field in your home state — transport from the store or warehouse to home likely dominates the delivery footprint.
12% to 60% of home deliveries have been reported to fail the first time. Either the van has to make a second or third run or customers end up driving in and out-of-town warehouse to pick up products whether laptops, T-shirts, or Barbie dolls. Also, typically. One-fifth of products are returned, for whatsoever reason. Every false move increases the carbon footprint.
Just as bad, our growing love for speed deliveries triples the footprint of online delivery. This because suppliers no longer have the flexibility to bundle multiple orders into a single delivery, and because it sends out vans less full and to travel farther per delivery than they would if purchases were to be delayed.
Of course, this assumes the comparison is with conventional shoppers who make special trips to the store for single purchases. Many don’t do that. We walk, bike or take the bus. Or buy many items on a single shopping trip.
In a bus ride, you share the emissions. On a typically half-empty bus, your share may still be greater than the emissions for home delivery — seven times more if you are only buying one item. But since the bus would have been on the route regardless, you haven’t added to the actual emissions.
If we can shop better, can online retailers deliver better too? That last mile is still a source of great (and costly) inefficiency for them, say logistics analysts. It’s where both dollars and carbon emissions can be saved.
So they are trying. Amazon wants half its shipments to be “net-zero carbon” by 2030. But how?
Electric vehicles are one possibility. With no tailpipe emissions, they reduce transport’s contribution to urban smog. But their carbon footprint depends on how their electricity is generated. Right now, an electric vehicle is a lot greener than in coal-burning.
How about drones? They would mostly deliver one package at a time. But even flitting back and forth from the depot, drones could sometimes still reduce carbon emissions relative to delivery trucks, according to Anne Goodchild of the University of Washington. They are likely to work best with light, urgent deliveries, such as medicines, food or mail, and in confined high-demand areas such as university campuses.
But staying aloft for long with a heavy load is energy-intensive. Drones could be combined with trucks that drive to local transport nodes, and then hand over to drones for the last mile.
Some say low-tech is still the best route to low carbon. Many European cities have companies such as Deliveroo using bicycle couriers for fast, zero-emission meal deliveries from local restaurants. The system could be extended for other goods. Other companies with an online shopping option should be encouraged to embrace ‘green delivery’ methods.
The Bottom Line
Online shopping can be greener than driving to the store. Novel last-mile alternatives to conventional delivery trucks stand to make it even more environmentally friendly. But the devil is in the details. If we bundle our orders and avoid the speedy delivery option, we boost the environmentally friendly quotient. Some say the real danger from online shopping is it encourages us to buy stuff we wouldn’t otherwise. The purchase that doesn’t happen has the lowest delivery carbon footprint of all.