"Alexa, what's the carbon footprint of my delivery?"
Updated: Aug 3
It’s certainly safe to assume that online shopping has become a sort of distraction or guilty pleasure while cooped up at home in quarantine during COVID-19 times. We may all be feeling a little happier about avoiding emissions from our daily journeys to work - but what about our bi-weekly online deliveries? Is it that bad? Does next day delivery have an impact?
Well, we’ve done the research for you! Read on for everything you need to know about the carbon footprint of your online deliveries....
According to data analyzed by the Bazaarvoice Network (a company providing software for brands & retailers’ e-commerce sites), there was a 21% increase in online orders and 25% increase in page views in March 2020 vs March 2019. In a survey they conducted with over 3,000 members of their community, 41% of respondents said they were currently shopping online for things they would normally shop for in-store. This is likely due to the inability of consumers to leave their homes to shop, combined with the fact that they have more time to look into purchasing brands they may not be familiar with. Monthly data analysis also showed that we are becoming more desperate for goods online as quarantine time goes on - with page views and order counts trending upwards by 75% in March and 95% in April respectively!
But what impact does this increase in online shopping have on greenhouse gas emissions? Are we avoiding emissions by not driving to stores ourselves? But what about if we used public transport to get to shops? What if deliveries fail and the journey by the delivery driver needs to be made twice?!
Let’s break it down into steps… Let’s say you need a new shirt to look your most professional self during zoom work calls, so you find one online and order it for delivery the same or next day. Your shirt has probably already traveled a great deal to get to your country from the manufacturer, taking a journey on a ship with thousands of tons of other goods, then carried by truck to a warehouse. Then, at some point, your shirt will be packaged up and driven directly to your door.
It is the final step of your shirt’s trip, known as the ‘last mile’ that is so impactful. The packages routes will be split into different directions, depending on a customers’ addresses, and make their way to many individual front doors, usually carried by a vast fleet of vans that produce a vast amount of greenhouse gases. Although, it is worth mentioning that some vans may of course be electric - for example, Amazon placed an order in March for 100,000 electric vehicles (yes, an Alexa is built-in).
Georgia Ayfantopoulou at the Hellenic Institute of transport in Thessaloniki, Greece, says that between 20% - 30% of a city’s CO2 emissions can be linked to last-mile deliveries. ‘It’s a major source of pollution, so in the context of climate change we need to do something about this,’ she said.
It certainly seems like a problem that’s here to stay… In 2009, 36% of people in the EU had bought something online in the past year, but by 2019, that had risen to 63%. The average American generates demand for about 60 tons of freight annually, according to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board. The U.S. Postal Service, the largest parcel delivery service in the nation, delivered more than 5.1 billion packages in 2018.
But you’re still probably wondering: Is it (A) 'greener' to visit a physical store (B) have that store deliver an order or (C) buy from an online-only retailer? The answer depends on several factors...
An excellent study was conducted in a new attempt to compare emissions associated with each shopping method. Co-author Sadegh Shahmohammadi, an environmental scientist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, explained that “Previous studies showed contradicting results [as to] whether online is better or offline is better. We wanted to improve the reliability of those models and see what is exactly going on.”
Researchers focused on fast-moving consumer goods, a category including food, cleaning supplies & personal-care products (not clothing or electronics). They incorporated the number of products purchased, packaging, storage & greenhouse gas emissions for various types of transportation. The scientists’ results were published in Environmental Science & Technology and showed a span of potential emissions for each shopping method.
Their research suggests that the 3 shopping methods studied, (visiting a physical store, receiving a delivery from a physical store or from an online retailer), produced roughly the same amount of emissions throughout most of the process. The disparity came from the ‘last mile’, the final step in a purchased item’s journey to a home. They calculated the last-mile carbon footprint in four countries: the UK, the U.S., the Netherlands and China.
Most of the time, having the physical store deliver products to you was more environmentally sound than traditional shopping, which was in turn greener than online retail. That is, unless you would usually travel to the store using a bicycle or walking. Remember too, this study was only for groceries!
Emission ranking shifted depending on specific circumstances, like the number of objects purchased on each trip, the distance of the last-mile journey and the method of transportation, which all had a large impact on the calculated volume of greenhouse gas emissions. For example, bundling more items together on a single purchase reduced a shoppers’ carbon footprint. Also, in countries such as the Netherlands and China, where walking and biking is a more prevalent form of visiting stores, visiting a brick-and-mortar location is more environmentally friendly than in the US, where driving is far more common. Shahmohammadi says, “In the U.S., the last-mile footprint for brick and mortar is, like, 32 times greater than that of the Netherlands”...
So what can we do? When it comes to transporting our shopping in the most environmentally friendly manner, he suggests consumers bundle purchases into fewer trips, take low-emission vehicles to stores and forego same-day delivery. However, the pressure cannot solely be on individuals. The systems in place must change in order to help individuals shop in the most sustainable manner. He notes that “replacing delivery vans with electric [vehicles] could reduce the last-mile transport footprint by 42% and the total footprint by 26% in the U.K.”
There are also some pretty innovative solutions to eliminating vehicles from the delivery process altogether... Flytrex is a company that delivers packages by unconventional means in Reykjavik, Iceland. Drones fly to a person’s home, then lower a package on a wire from 24 metres in the air. Eliport, a Spanish start-up is developing dog-sized autonomous delivery robots that trundle around cities at walking speed delivering packages. These would reduce congestion and emissions, assuming they are powered on electricity generated from renewables.
Nimber, a Norway-based firm, wants to connect people who want to send an item to a particular location with people who are already going that way; ‘We are a matching platform that connects senders with what we call bringers,’ said Jon Martin Tafjord, Nimber’s CEO. ‘Sustainability is what we focus on the most,’ said Tafjord. ‘If you look at the cars and trucks that are already on the road, most of them are half empty… our mission is to use existing capacity.’ Over the past two years, it has organised delivery of around 1,000 parcels/month. There’s certainly more that needs to be done to bring these solutions to a global scale!
There are carbon-neutral shipping options, like Sendle, an Australian-based shipping service that balances emissions from deliveries by supporting projects that combat climate change. Sendle has offset 6.5 billion kilometers of journey-based emissions since inception in 2014. You can read more about the offsetting projects they support here.
There are options in the US too! The United Parcel Service in the US offers a carbon neutral shipping option where your business can reduce its carbon footprint by contributing to environmentally beneficial projects in the United States, China, Colombia, and Thailand. More information on that can be found here.
As always, when it comes to reducing your carbon footprint, it’s best to minimise your purchases in the first place, as tempting as it might be. If you do really need a few new items online, maybe try swapping Amazon for eBay and enjoy some second-hand or vintage pieces (plus, why does it always seem that items made 30+ years ago just last longer?).
When it comes to online shopping and reducing our emissions from deliveries, there are a few ways you can make a difference. If you could walk to the store instead of ordering it online, do it. If you have to take the car, make the most of your trip by taking care of some other errands at the same time. If you receive your package at home, make sure to be at home so that the van doesn't have to make an extra round later! Try to avoid next-day delivery. Choose a delivery partner that uses electric vehicles. Lastly, call on major corporations to act! And in the meantime, let’s give ourselves 24 hours to think about whether we really do need another unicorn t-shirt.
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