The carbon footprint of online shopping highly depends on the actions of consumers. A 2013 MIT study, “Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping”, shows shoppers can be divided into a number of different categories that span from a “traditional retail shopper” to what the study calls a “cybernaut” shopper who exclusively shops online.
The highest impact shopper is actually a mix of both, one that goes to the store to compare prices and then buys online with expedited shipping. The study shows that online shopping with slower shipping options has a smaller footprint than driving to a retail store to search, purchase and return a product. By taking purchases to many customers on a single route, delivery trucks emit less carbon that having each consumer drive separately to a brick-and-mortar store. Additionally, the delivery truck is very likely to be more fuel-efficient than the car of the average American consumer.
Fast shipping, such as the two-day shipping standard for the 100 million Amazon Prime users in the United States, on the contrary, comes with a hidden environmental cost. Expedited shipping implies that packages are not as consolidated as they could be, meaning they are not necessarily delivered at the same time and as one order, in order to fulfill customer expectations. As a result, more cars and trucks are required to deliver them, and as they have to make multiple trips between hubs and homes as opposed to slower shipping options which fill up trucks with cargo and make a single trip to fill orders, it leads to more carbon emissions. This lack of consolidation also leads to an increase in packaging waste, which was found to congest cities, add pollutants to the air, and cardboard to landfills. On top of it all, Amazon just announced it is rolling out one-day shipping for Prime members worldwide. Yet, the enterprise is planning to share its company-wide carbon footprint for the first time later this year and hopes to “reach 50% of all Amazon shipments with net zero carbon by 2030” with project “Shipment Zero”.
Josué Velázquez-Martínez, a sustainable logistics professor said about online shopping shipping: “If you are willing to wait a week, it’s like killing just 20 trees instead of 100 trees.” So let’s cancel our Amazon Prime subscriptions and just put up with it.