Social distancing and the risk of COVID-19 has pushed online shopping to ever greater dominance. As shoppers avoid the queues of supermarkets and shift to online grocery options, retailers have had to institute their own digital ‘queuing’ systems to artificially suppress demand. As digital dominates even more of our purchases, the carbon cost of ecommerce can no longer be ignored.
Brick and mortar stores have closed under government mandated lockdowns, making online the only option to continue consumers’ traditional habits and patterns. Indeed, perhaps responding to the stresses and boredom of lockdown and the pandemic, our buying habits have evolved; two in five consumers in the UK state that they will make more online purchases after lockdown ends.
This shift online stops us from travelling to and from stores, but increases packaging and the number of delivery drivers on the roads. The issue emerges as a question of efficiency. Vehicles out on the roads for online delivery are usually not hybrid or electric. They create both greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollutants, degrading the quality of our air. However, these deliveries are designed to cover the most efficient routes, unlike our journeys to the shops.
The frequency of its purchase makes food a highly significant good in terms of efficiency. The growing trend of retailers providing ‘farm fresh’ groceries, with restaurant demand practically collapsing overnight, and the home delivery options of established supermarkets becoming more extensive have their own consequences.
With farm fresh goods going straight to the consumer from the farms where they were produced, a simplification of the supply chain generates a financial efficiency. However, the environmental efficiency is less clear. A study in the UK found that a roundtrip drive to collect a vegetable box from a local farm shop would have to be less than 7km (or 4.3 miles) to be more efficient than a delivery order.
Most studies into this issue, produced in the US, use a base case scenario of using cars to carry out physical purchases. This assumption does not apply as readily or effectively to Europe and other regions where both online shopping and public transportation options are more common. Shoppers visiting physical stores are generating their own emissions through travel but this impact could be reduced by walking, cycling or using public transport.
However, efficiency of transportation is only one component of the environmental impact. Consumer behaviour between the two methods of purchase must be considered, an escalation in generous return policies can incentivise buying multiple items, demanding further travel for delivery vehicles and generating packaging waste.
After return, retailers often write items off and dispose of them after collection. While return options exists for both physical and online retail, the increasing ease of online returns, often eliciting buying alternate versions of the same item as well as the inability to see or try on items before purchase, means that ecommerce returns certainly generate a greater carbon impact.
The advent of Amazon Prime and other accelerated shipping options disrupts the efficiencies of delivery vehicles as they are forced to make deliveries that are not optimised for route efficiency in order to hit specific delivery times and locations. Free delivery services like Prime create little incentive to consolidate purchases, increasing the overall number of deliveries.
The few strategies that improve the efficiency of rushed delivery – parcel shops, pickup lockers, or workplace deliveries – have all been shuttered by COVID-19. Shopping online can decrease the carbon footprint of your purchases, but as accelerated shipping is normalised, the efficiencies of ecommerce are eroded in favour of more stuff, more fast.
Warehouses, which store large quantities of goods in a dense manner, are more efficient in space and energy than having many smaller physical stores in urban contexts; when real estate has become so precious in many of the world’s cities warehouses afford an efficient solution to increasing demand.
Yet an emphasis on ever increasing efficiency in resources has limitations on the societal good that it can generate and protect. There are strong communal aspects that exist along British highstreets, many of the businesses are family-run and small, contributing to local economies and needs. Neighbourhood shops act as social and public centres, generating societal value. They hire people locally within cities and towns, as opposed to warehouse spaces, with their locations far from residential areas and their ever-increasing emphasis on automation.
To minimise harm and maximise societal benefit a balance must be struck between environmental and societal needs. What is unclear — and continually in negotiation by businesses small and large, governments, and citizens — is where this balance should lie.