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What’s the Environmentally Friendliest Way to Shop?

Drones, robots, crowd-shipping, and more offer new options for solving the sticky last-mile-problem of bringing purchases home

In theory, delivering goods purchased online should produce less carbon than a shopper making a trip to a local retailer. But real-world experiences can be much different. Photo by Jeremy Vandel / CC BY-NC-ND / Flickr.

Is cyber-shopping terrible for the environment

Some say yes, with all those trucks heading out into suburbia to deliver your latest gadget, fashion garment, or book. But online retailers insist it is the greener delivery route—much better than you driving to the store.

So, who is right? And are there even better ways?

This really does matter for. Online shopping makes up one in seven retail purchases worldwide. Its value in 2019 will be a staggering $3.5 trillion, a figure that is rising by more than a fifth every year.

How much of the total carbon footprint of what you buy is attributable to delivery varies hugely. But wherever your latest purchase comes from—whether a Chinese factory or a field in your home state—transport from the store or warehouse to your home likely dominates the delivery footprint, says Alan McKinnon, a professor of logistics at the Kühne Logistics University in Hamburg, Germany, and author of a new book Decarbonizing Logistics.

What logistics folks call the “last mile” is usually the most energy-intensive stage, McKinnon and colleague Julia Edwards have pointed out, “and typically generates more CO2 emissions than all the upstream logistical activities.” 

It is also where the difference between online and in-store shopping is greatest— nd McKinnon says that most of the time, delivery is best. A typical home delivery round of online purchases in Britain consists of 120 drops on a 50-mile (80 kilometer) round. That round produces some 50 pounds (20 kilograms) of CO2, or just over 6 ounces (170 grams) per individual delivery. If you went to the store, the typical drive would be around 13 miles (21 kilometers) there and back, which would generate 24 times more CO2.  So you’d have to pick up 24 items to break even, he says.

Theory vs. real world

That’s the theory. In the real world, the difference is much less, says manufacturing technology specialist Dimitri Weideli, who did an environmental analysis of online shopping while a research associate at MIT in 2013. For instance, 12% to 60% of home deliveries have been reported to fail first time. Either the van has to make a second and even third run, or customers end up driving to an out-of-town warehouse to pick up the product. Also, typically, one-fifth of products are returned, for whatever reason. Every false move increases the carbon footprint.

Just as bad, our growing love of speed deliveries almost triples the footprint of online delivery, says Weideli. That is because your supplier no longer has the flexibility to bundle multiple orders into a single delivery, and because it sends out vans less full and to travel farther per delivery than they would if you were willing to wait a bit longer for your purchase to arrive.

Weidel says such “impatient” cyber-shoppers have the worst carbon footprint of all. But even allowing for them, in general, whether buying laptops or Barbie dolls or T-shirts, he wrote in an analysis he did as a research associate at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics in 2013, “online shopping is the most environmentally friendly option.”

Of course, this assumes the comparison is with conventional shoppers who make special trips to the store for single purchases. Many don’t do that. We walk, bike, or take the bus. Or buy many items on a single shopping trip.

In a bus ride, you share the emissions. On a typically half-empty bus, your share may still be greater than the emissions for a home delivery—seven times more if you are only buying one item, says Patricia van Loon, based on her research at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. But since the bus would have been on the route regardless, you haven’t added to the actual emissions.

EVs, drones, and robots

If we can shop better, can online retailers deliver better too? That last mile is still a source of great (and costly) inefficiency for them, say logistics analysts. It’s where both dollars and carbon emissions can be saved.

So they are trying. Amazon wants half its shipments to be “net zero carbon” by 2030. But how?

Electric vehicles are one possibility. With no tailpipe emissions, they reduce transport’s contribution to urban smog. But their carbon footprint depends on how their electricity is generated. Right now, an electric vehicle is a lot greener in Vermont than in coal-burning West Virginia.

How about drones? They would mostly deliver one package at a time. But even flitting back and forth from the depot, drones could sometimes still reduce carbon emissions relative to delivery trucks, according to Anne Goodchild of the University of Washington. They are likely to work best with light, urgent deliveries, such as medicines, food or mail, and in confined high-demand areas such as university campuses.

But staying aloft for long with a heavy load is energy-intensive. Drones could be combined with trucks that drive to local transport nodes, and then hand over to drones for the last mile.

Or perhaps ground-based robots? This year, both FedEx and Amazon announced plans to deploy these smart, autonomous hampers-on-wheels along our sidewalks, dodging pedestrians and crossing at the lights. Lowe’s already has plans to deploy with FedEx, and FedEx says it is talking to Pizza Hut and Walmart about doing their deliveries as well.

Low-tech options

Some say low-tech is still the best route to low carbon. Many European cities have companies such as Deliveroo using bicycle couriers for fast, zero-emission meal deliveries from local restaurants. The system could be extended for other goods. Ford recently developed software that could summon bike couriers to take parcels in a suburban London neighborhood the last mile from truck to front door. 

Lockers in shopping malls also get around the last mile problem for online retailers. Customers are given a code and pick up their own package. But if you drive there, the carbon gain is lost.

The new kid on the block is crowd-shipping—hitchhiking for parcels. Start-ups like Roadie promise to “connect people who have stuff with driver already heading that way.” Drivers make bids to deliver. Right now in some places, half of all crowd-shipping trips are made specially for the delivery, while another third take long detours. So the potential carbon saving disappears. But the more people join in, the more efficient it could be.

The bottom line

The bottom line? Online shopping can be greener than driving to the store. Novel last-mile alternatives to conventional delivery trucks stand to make it even more environmentally friendly.

But the devil is in the details. If we bundle our orders, and avoid the speedy delivery option, we boost the environmentally friendly quotient. (Imagine if we were offered a “green shipping” button when choosing dispatch options?) Other tips for reducing delivery’s environmental impact: Do be in when the courier calls. Don’t buy on a whim and then take up the “free return” option.

Oh, and don’t binge on stuff. Some say the real danger from online shopping is it encourages us to buy stuff we wouldn’t otherwise. The purchase that doesn’t happen has the lowest delivery carbon footprint of all.

Fred Pearce is a British environmental journalist and author. This post originally appeared at Ensia. For more information, see Decarbonizing E-Commerce: A Path to Low-Carbon Shipping

9 Comments

  1. Nathaniel Ahlers | | #1

    Did any of these analyses range into account the carbon footprint of operating the physical stores where people buy things in person? Even though stores can contain thousands of items, the carbon footprint of lighting and conditioning a physical store must be huge. While this likely varies dramatically by region, size of store, type of building the store is in, etc., I am curious how much this contribute to the carbon footprint of an individual purchase.

  2. J M | | #2

    More information on this topic:

    "According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the Building Sector consumes nearly half (47.6%) of all energy produced in the United States*. Seventy-five percent (74.9%) of all the electricity produced in the U.S. is used just to operate buildings." The EIA also notes retail (mercantile, food, and services businesses) consumes over half of all commercial energy use. Just think of how much energy is wasted by the retail middleman that display goods sourced from more energy efficient warehouses - going consumer direct eliminates that waste.
    ...
    "A recent USDA survey found that in 88% of U.S households, people hop in their car to buy groceries, driving an average of 4 miles to their preferred store.2 If each of these households took at least one trip per week, that would add up to over 42 billion miles driven round trip each year—about 10 times the distance to Pluto!3 All these car trips result in carbon pollution: over 17 million metric tons of CO2 come from car tailpipes just from driving back and forth to the grocery store. That number may even be higher, since many families take more than one trip per week. (“Oh no! We’re out of milk again.”)"

    See also:

    https://www.nrdc.org/stories/attention-online-shoppers

    http://ctl.mit.edu/sites/ctl.mit.edu/files/library/public/Dimitri-Weideli-Environmental-Analysis-of-US-Online-Shopping_0.pdf (mentioned in the article)

    https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-02/documents/420f16001.pdf

    Holiday advice - go green, don't shop at all, or if you must, buy online. Unless it's truly local goods without much driving involved, buying goods from far away places like China locally isn't responsible - do your best to minimize your footprint. From the NRDC and Ideal Bite:

    "1. The early bird ... cuts pollution? It's true: Do your online and catalog shopping early and you'll be able to request ground shipment. Ground shipping is six times more efficient than overnight air shipping. It saves fuel and reduces global warming pollution.

    2. Shop in the Buff
    As long as it’s online shopping, that is. This year, shop for gifts on your computer at home to save major energy (and major cash, thanks to exclusive online discounts).

    Why it matters—Despite their size, e-commerce warehouses use 1/16th of the energy that retail stores do. And even overnight air shipping adds up to 40% less fuel, per item, than the average car trip to the store."

    More on holiday waste: http://money.cnn.com/2010/12/16/news/economy/holiday_trash/index.htm

  3. Matt V | | #3

    "Just as bad, our growing love of speed deliveries almost triples the footprint of online delivery, says Weideli. That is because your supplier no longer has the flexibility to bundle multiple orders into a single delivery, and because it sends out vans less full and to travel farther per delivery than they would if you were willing to wait a bit longer for your purchase to arrive."

    But they don't do this. With UPS and FedEx, ground shipping just slows down the long-haul part. Once a package arrives at the local warehouse it's almost always delivered the next day. For people who live in urban and suburban areas, there are enough deliveries all the time that the delivery vans are probably pretty full if they optimize the routes well. For people in rural areas, or for the fastest shipping speeds, then less full delivery vans travelling farther might be more of a problem.

    And bundling orders is pretty limited. Amazon does a little with "super saver" shipping, but not much. Maybe it's behind the scenes, but if they are moving things you ordered between warehouses in full trucks that doesn't seem much different than the long-haul routes for UPS and FexEx assuming they also fill their trucks. I guess that might save on cardboard boxes, if they don't have to individually box everything moving between their warehouses.

    It might be helpful if delivery companies offered an eco option. For example they could hold everything to your address and deliver just one or two or three days a week. Maybe they only deliver on Wednesday and Friday, so if you get a package one of the other days they will hold it until the next delivery day. I think I remember hearing about this from one company, but I don't remember the details. Most people probably don't get enough packages for that to be helpful, but if they could do it on a neighborhood scale it might help a little.

    Where I live, Amazon is delivering almost everything with their own vans and delivery service now. That reduces the volume for UPS and FedEx, which gives them less ability to optimize things.

  4. Peter L | | #4

    Annual carbon dioxide emissions from the bitcoin network are as high as 22.9 million metric tons. It also accounts for 0.2 percent of global electricity use.

    Amazon servers are now responsible for nearly 2 percent of all electrical power consumption in the United States. That does NOT even take into account all the electricity used by Amazon supply hubs.

    Why is nobody talking about that?

    1. Matt V | | #5

      That 2% probably includes Amazon Web Services, which runs all sorts of websites. Amazon.com is big, but I imagine it doesn't take too many resources to run the actual website.

      The article suggests that a warehouse like Amazon is more efficient than a retail store. It makes sense, they don't need as much lighting and conditioning to make it nice, and they can fit a lot more stuff in the same space since things don't have to be nicely on display.

      Bitcoin is a problem, but it's still not a mainstream payment method for online shopping. I'm no more likely to pay with Bitcoin if I shop online rather than in a store.

      1. Peter L | | #6

        I think you hit the nail on the head when you said Amazon doesn't, "need as much as lighting and conditioning to make it nice", hence the reason employees are overheating and dying on the warehouse floors. Amazon is the modern day coal mine. Sure, they are not as bad as some 1800's coal mine but definitely they need room for improvement.

        Regarding Bitcoin. Amazon is gearing up to start accepting it as a form of payment. When that happens, it will just bump up more of the current 22.9 million metric tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions that Bitcoin servers put out.

  5. Peter L | | #7

    Another factor that was left out in this article was with people sitting on chairs and ordering stuff online, people are becoming more and more fat and unhealthy. Getting up and having to go to a mall and walk around in a mall, was exercise. Sitting at home and ordering items is creating a lazy and unhealthy society.

    This is our future...

    1. Eric Richer | | #8

      I'm torn on whether the future looks like Wall-E or Hunger Games.

    2. James Someone | | #9

      Walking thru a mall as a form of exercise, might work for a senior citizen but wouldn't do the general public much good.
      Sad to say, most people shy away from any vigorous activity these days along with the idea of perspiring.
      On the other end of the spectrum, extremists armed with fitbits and pelotons spinning a high cadence in some conditioned cubicle.

      We've lost the middle ground.

      The Mall: A mixture of cheap merchandise, perfumes and food court fume, the ultimate in IAQ. Shoppers lumbering around on escalators, made bulky by accumulation purchased on sale.

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