The Hidden Costs of Online Shopping
Dec 16, 2021
I remember when my family first got an Amazon Prime membership. At the time, I was a freshman in college living on campus with no car. A trip to the grocery store was a half-day adventure involving multiple bus rides, weaving through weekend shoppers, and then lugging all my purchases back to my room. This all changed with two-day shipping. With Amazon, everything I could possibly need or want—ranging from toiletries and groceries to textbooks and school supplies—was at my fingertips with just a few clicks and two-day delivery. My half-day quests for essentials turned into a five-minute walk to the on-campus post office.
As consumers, we benefit from the ease of two-day (and now even same-day) delivery. The ability to think of something in the morning, order it online that afternoon and have it delivered later that night is incredibly powerful—but at what cost? As the plethora of daily and weekly delivery boxes began to add up, I began to wonder about the environmental cost of it all. Here are a few things I’ve learned about online shopping and shipping that we should keep in mind this holiday season:
In some cases, online shopping has a smaller carbon footprint than shopping at a store so long as you follow these simple rules:
Consolidate your orders into as few deliveries or packages as possible. This helps cut down not only on the amount of single-use packaging materials but also the number of delivery trucks and gas used to reach your address.
Stick to one method. If you’ve already ordered several items from Target or Walmart online, avoid driving to those same stores later that day to shop in person. Try ordering everything you need in one order to cut back on unnecessary trips (and gas) to the store.
Photo credit: Negative Space
Where We are Now
When we order online, companies can maximize efficiency by distributing products from closely located warehouses and delivering multiple packages to the same neighborhood in one trip. This means that if you and all your neighbors order online, you might not all need to drive to the store, and instead, one delivery truck can drop off all your orders. However, the advent of same-day delivery and free expedited shipping has eroded these efficiencies.
Let’s say you place an order which includes three items from Amazon, all with free two-day shipping. Amazon will try to find two or three of these products from the same warehouse, but if it can’t, it’ll have to ship these products separately from different warehouses and on different delivery trucks to get the products to you on time. You’ve gone from one box and one delivery truck to two or three of each.
This is a result of the rise of expedited shipping, with stores competing over shipping speeds and which ones can get their products to you the fastest. Customer satisfaction is prioritized over efficiency and environmental impact.
What Are Our Options and Where Can Tech Help?
So, what can we do about this? Have we lost all gains and efficiencies as it relates to the environmental impact of online shopping? No.
While expedited shipping is readily offered and often the default when placing an online order, we can still opt to choose no-rush shipping or other options which consolidate our packages and minimize the environmental impact of shipping. Additionally, we can be more conscious when placing orders to put everything we need in one order rather than multiple, which will ideally limit the number of trips driving to the store as well. These aren’t innovative solutions: It just takes an extra second when you’re in your online checkout to think about and choose the lower environmental impact option.
Other companies are coming up with more creative solutions to this problem. As far as online shopping goes, fashion is one industry that benefits from us trying stuff on, adjusting sizes, and returning if need be. Olive, a new Google Chrome extension, is helping companies and shoppers mitigate the increased number of deliveries and returns from the fashion industry. Olive allows subscribers to combine and consolidate orders from multiple different retailers, which they then deliver in one reusable box on a set day of the week. It also lets you set a return date for Olive to pick up the same delivery box and return your items on the same day. Not only are they reducing or removing single-use packaging, but they’re also consolidating items and providing companies opportunities to increase and maximize their efficiency.
These are a couple of the things I’ve learned about online shopping and how we can all mitigate our environmental impact this holiday season. Online shopping isn’t going away and it is a great convenience, but as consumers, it may help to make a more conscious decision to reduce our environmental impact.