President at Logistyx Technologies, overseeing the company’s parcel shipping technology innovation worldwide.
E-commerce is contributing to climate change as merchants and shippers turn orders around fast to please customers. Greater shipment volume and frequency create more carbon emissions and more waste. To fix this problem, merchants, carriers and consumers all must answer the call.
Sounding The Alarm On Climate Change
If it hasn’t been evident for years that climate change is significantly impacting our planet, the UN Climate Change Conference in November 2021 made it abundantly clear: Climate change is harming our planet and our health. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and other air pollution are rising at alarming rates. Growing levels of garbage are piling up on land and in the oceans and reaching our food chain. Changing weather patterns are creating devastating weather events in greater frequency. Our collective mental health is on the decline due to greater worry about our planet.
Though countries from around the world agreed on efforts to curb climate change, a report published recently shows they won’t suffice, projecting global temperature to increase 4 degrees Celsius by 2100, well over the proposed goal of limiting the rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. NASA noted that 2021was tied for the sixth warmest year on record, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a report showing 2021 was the 45th consecutive year above the 20th century average for global temperature. And as a recent CNN.com article pointed out, “Earth’s average temperature, according to the latest findings, is now around 1.1 degrees Celsius above average pre-industrial levels.”
Researchers from the U.S., the UK and Finland published the results of a survey of 100,000 people ages 16-25 in 10 countries on their feelings about global warming. Sixty percent of respondents said they are “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change, while more than 45% reported their views on climate change negatively affects their daily life.
Despite all this, the pull of consumerism and instant gratification makes shoppers, and thus companies, resistant to meaningful changes that would promote sustainability. E-commerce order volume continues to explode, with 2021 U.S. online sales increasing 16.2% year over year after 2020 U.S. online sales increased 31.8% year over year.
With those orders comes an increase in parcel shipments, with there being 131 billion parcels shipped worldwide in 2020, according to Pitney Bowes. Parcel shipments are expected to double again in the next five years, reaching 266 billion by 2026. DHL announced 15% e-commerce network growth for peak season 2021 alone, “Processing 3 million orders with 11+ million items shipped during the 7-day time period between Black Friday (Nov. 26) and Dec. 3.”
Thanks to Amazon and its influence, consumers now expect most of these orders to be at their door in two days, if not sooner, but, according to a CBS News report, this convenience comes at a cost: “The rush toward ever-faster shipping is creating the need for more truck trips, undoing the ecological benefits of shopping online.”
When consumers view two-day (or sooner) shipping as a key differentiator for making a purchase, companies are compelled to offer it. This creates greater shipment volumes and frequencies, with many shoppers getting deliveries from multiple carriers, multiple days per week. Accounting for gas used, emissions, packaging, labor, etc., the ecological impact is significant.
Changes Must Occur At All Levels
To reverse these trends and produce positive ecological impact, changes must occur at all levels.
• Offer ecologically-friendly packaging: Eliminate plastics and foam that are non-recyclable, package items together instead of separately and refrain from re-packaging items already in shipping-safe boxes.
• Present eco-friendly shipping options: Combine orders for delivery on a single day and encourage customers to choose this option. Amazon offers a Prime Delivery Day and incentivizes this option with credits toward future purchases. This can also improve shippers’ bottom lines by reducing fulfillment costs and reliance on traditional carrier services.
• Continue to invest in alternative fuel vehicles to reduce emissions: DHL Express ordered 12 electric aircraft from Eviation. UPS purchased 10 electric vertical aircraft from Beta Technologies for time-sensitive deliveries in small- and medium-sized markets. FedEx pledged to achieve carbon-neutral operations by 2040 by replacing existing vehicles with zero-emission electric vehicles. The United States Postal Service (USPS) announced plans for its next-generation delivery vehicle to be in use by 2023.
• Emphasize alternatives to daily at-home delivery: Establish and promote pickup locations where customers can hold packages and pick them up on their schedules or preferred day of the week. Most major carriers offer these already, but making them better known to customers should be a priority. Don’t charge customers for the “privilege” or they most likely won’t opt for it.
• Expand eco-options globally: Many of the sustainability initiatives from carriers are currently only available in the U.S., UK and Europe. A quick look at the list of the largest polluters makes it clear why more countries need these offerings.
• Prioritize sustainability over immediate gratification: When companies offer combined shipments or a single delivery day, take it — whether incentivized or not. Investigate alternatives to home pickup/delivery such as centralized parcel lockers. Shop locally rather than relying on e-commerce for items that are readily available.
The fundamental shift in mindset about how we shop is likely to have the greatest effect of all. When we prioritize sustainability over instant gratification, shop with companies that prioritize sustainability, and demand more sustainable options from shippers and carriers, then we’ll see a dramatic shift in our impact on the environment.