Speedy deliveries of online purchases come at a much higher environmental cost than slower ones.
Shopping online is very convenient, but have you ever stopped to consider the environmental impact of having those things delivered to your front door at maximum speed? A short video made by the University of California for its hugely successful Climate Lab series assesses the environmental cost of free two-day shipping.
I was surprised to learn that online shopping is better than getting in your own car and driving to the store, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, unless you opt for rush delivery of those items. Because most companies offer rush, or two-day, shipping for free, this is a tantalizing option. In fact, there's a good chance you've never stopped to think about before. If you pay nothing for the same item to arrive within 2 days vs. 7 days, where's the debate?
Well, video narrator and conservation scientist M. Sanjayan will tell you that shipping time does make a big difference. When people want their goods fast, it forces companies to send out delivery trucks that are not filled to capacity. It also means that they ship different items separately, depending on availability; one item on your list may have to be flown from a warehouse in another state, before being put on a separate truck to deliver to your door.
Then there's the added problem of free returns. Many clothing companies allow a shopper to order multiple sizes and return the ones that don't fit. Sure, it's convenient, but it's crazy when you stop to think about it. As Sanjayan says:
"If I shop online and pick that 'try before you buy' option, it'd be the same as saying a delivery truck is driving back and forth just to find me the right stuff."
The video discusses some interesting efforts delivery companies are making to improve fuel efficiency in their trucks, such as transmitting timing of traffic lights to drivers and 'truck platooning' to reduce drag on highways, but I can't help thinking this distracts from the real problem, which is rampant overconsumption. We all need to buy less stuff.
Personally, I avoid online shopping because it's just too easy -- and I'm very picky about how my clothes fit and feel. Forcing myself to go to a store adds a barrier that discourages mindless consumption. It gets in the way of simply pulling out a credit card while flipping through my phone.
While online shopping is unlikely to decrease in popularity, Sanjayan thinks the best solution is for companies to offer a "green shipping" option at checkout. This would remind shoppers that there is a more sustainable way of doing things, and would allow companies to take whatever time they need to deliver items in the most energy-efficient way possible (i.e. waiting for a full load before heading out).
Better yet, we could all just leave the car at home, put on our snow pants and boots, and walk downtown to support local businesses when we need to buy something.
Watch the video below: