The environmental impact of online shopping


Photo: Pixabay

The pandemic is changing the way we shop. According to the Saleforce purchasing index, from the state of alarm to the end of the easing, purchases on line increased by 67% in Spain (71% globally).

It is clear that e-commerce generates value for the consumer because it is fast, convenient and convenient. Taking into account the discounts offered, it can also be cheaper.

But trade generates social value on line? Does it improve social well-being? Consumers seem to think so, according to a multi-university study for Asedas. However, only 2 in 10 are aware of the environmental impact generated by online shopping.

Everything we do generates an environmental impact; it is not possible to live without consuming resources. When we evaluate the impact of trade on lineWe do this by comparing it with the impact of other alternative forms of purchasing.

More emissions and urban congestion

The works that analyze the environmental impact of e-commerce identify three sources of impact: transport, storage and packaging. To these three we could add the environmental impact of the servers used to place and receive orders, although we won’t talk much about it in this note.

In transportation, Internet commerce changes the impacts of the last mile, the last stretch of the distribution chain. The model with the least emissions would be an individual walking around to buy the products they need.

Conversely, the door-to-door delivery model using trucks generates more emissions and increases urban congestion because this vehicle uses more fuel and makes frequent stops in city centers. To the impact of delivery, we need to add failed deliveries and returns that repeat the cycle of emissions and congestion.

Therefore, a delivery model using other, less polluting vehicles would reduce emissions. They would be further reduced with the use of bicycles, but this requires a rethinking of the design of the distribution network. Other delivery models are being experimented with using drones (such as Amazon’s Prime Air project).

Delivery men sitting sideways next to their waiting bikes.
Delivery men waiting for their orders on a street in Strasbourg (France).
Shutterstock / Hadrian

Centralized delivery, a solution?

Similarly, in centralized delivery models (where products are delivered to a collection point where the consumer goes), emissions are reduced. These models not only centralize order collection, but also package delivery.

One of the reasons emissions are multiplying is that consumers order products from different platforms or, even if it is the same, shipments are not centralized by household, but by supplier.

When deliveries are centralized at a collection point where the consumer goes, the emissions associated with these multiple deliveries are reduced. It would be the equivalent of a customer buying everything he needs in one factory visit.

Innovation in shared reception and delivery models can become an alternative to the door-to-door model.

The role of storage and packaging

The second source of impact are warehouses. On the one hand, having larger warehouses reduces the impact per unit of product served. On the other hand, the complexity of shipping management increases the environmental costs associated with each delivery.

The third source of impact, perhaps the most visible to the consumer, is packaging. If you have ever placed an order you will be surprised to see a 50cm box protecting a 10cm item.

The use of cardboard and plastic to protect shipments generates impacts associated with their production and increases the waste generated in purchases, especially when compared with reusable and reused bags from physical stores.

And not only is packaging per unit of product inefficient, but the fact that shipments are not centralized per household multiplies the use of cardboard because each item comes with its own packaging.

logistics warehouse with shelves full of packages of various sizes.
Shutterstock / Don Pablo

Towards a more sustainable packaging

There seems to be a social consensus in this: the majority of consumers would like order packaging to be unified, packaging minimized and to be able to choose packaging material, according to a study conducted by Ihobe, Ecoembes and AECOC in 2019.

The pressure of the European Union to circulate packaging and the search for new compostable or ingestible materials can alleviate the pressure that packaging exerts on the planet.

In short, in urban areas, where there are establishments where you can walk to satisfy the material needs of life, shopping in physical stores generates fewer emissions.

In rural areas, the opposite can happen: a single truck traveling the distance is preferable to deliver to 10 families, rather than 10 families driving the distance to the point of sale, if it is not in the municipality.

If e-commerce continues to grow, we have the opportunity to design it in such a way that it is a source of value for all the agents involved, especially for those most affected by the crisis: for small producers, who may have on line a gateway to the market, as it is impossible for them to enter large chains; for delivery workers and, finally, for consumers who do not have easy access to physical stores.

It is essential to design a business model on line which places environmental sustainability above all consideration. If we run out of raw materials and increase the average temperature of the earth, none of us will have the opportunity to continue producing or buying on this planet.

The conversation

Carmen Valor Martínez, teacher and researcher at the Faculty of Economics and Business (ICADE), department of marketing, Comillas Pontifical University

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

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