Managing the Environmental Cost of Amazon

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, Amazon has gotten some attention recently. Lackluster efforts to protect employees during COVID’s spread as well as an appearance by its CEO, Jeff Bezos, in an antitrust congressional hearing have put Amazon in the limelight and left many questioning if this is a company they want to support.

I will be the first to confess that I’ve relied on Amazon a lot in the past. It’s diversity of products and fast shipping have all made it a top choice when I need something quickly. (Which happens quite a lot. Have I made panicked Amazon orders three days before Christmas? Possibly.) And I’m certainly not alone in my reliance on Amazon. During Amazon Prime Day last year (which I should note was 48 hours as opposed to the usual 36), the company sold more items than ever before on a prime day sale – a whopping 175 million, earning the company approximately $7.16 billion.

Screen Shot 2020-08-12 at 2.25.52 PM

Unfortunately, Amazon’s success comes at an environmental cost, despite the company’s efforts to lessen emissions. Shipping, when done efficiently, can lower the environmental impact of purchases. A 2012 study found that “[grocery] delivery service can reduce CO2 emissions by 80%-90%” when drivers are assigned according to proximity to customers and not randomly. (This reduction is in relation to the use of a personal vehicle.) However, Amazon’s fast shipping can in fact raise the carbon cost of purchased items.

Jeff Bezos
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. Source: engadget.com (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Jeff Bezos has previously stated that “Although it’s counterintuitive, the fastest delivery speeds generate the least carbon emissions because these products ship from fulfillment centers very close to the customer — it simply becomes impractical to use air or long ground routes.” However, experts have pushed back on this assertion. While it is true that shipping items by air produces more carbon emissions than the use of ground transportation, the time-constraints of same-day or two-day delivery mean that routes cannot be organized efficiently and the carbon benefit of shipping is predominantly lost. And it’s not just the route that is affected when delivery times are constrained. According to an NPR interview with M. Sanjayan, the CEO of Conservation International, “trucks from online retailers may go out less than full to get you your products more quickly. But it can increase harmful emissions.”

Then there’s the impact on those who are delivering packages. According to a Buzzfeed investigation, “Amazon drivers say they often have to deliver upward of 250 packages a day — and sometimes far more than that — which works out to a dizzying pace of less than two minutes per package based on an eight-hour shift.” This pace makes it difficult for employees to eat, use the facilities, or take any kind of break. Furthermore, the “two minutes per package” pace incentivises driving above the speed limit, sometimes in dangerous weather conditions, and unsurprisingly, accidents have occurred.

amazon vans
Amazon’s newest delivery vans. Source: money.cnn.com.

Consumer behavior, namely the desire to have items delivered in ever-shortening time periods, is increasing demand for these services and contributing to their unethical and inefficient nature. I’m certainly not letting Amazon off the hook for how it treats it employees, but we as consumers can make wiser decisions at every step of online shopping: ordering, delivery, and returns. Even if you prefer not to support Amazon for ethical reasons, keep reading because we’re about to dive into some tips and tricks to make any shipping experience more environmentally friendly (and perhaps a little cheaper as well).


Ordering

Something I learned while doing research for this post was that Amazon offers a “frustration-free” packaging option on some items. This option eliminates the unnecessary (or at least most of the unnecessary) packaging materials, which reduces the waste associated with the purchase. You can start your search with this link and look for your specific item from there with the knowledge that you’re in the frustration-free packaging part of Amazon. If you’re not ordering from Amazon, look for companies that have recycled or compostable packaging.

We don’t just want to reduce the amount of packaging that comes with our purchases, we also want to reduce the number of trips a delivery vehicle has to make. A good trick to try, if you’re not tight on time, is to put items into your cart and then complete your purchase at the end of the week. This gives you time to add forgotten items to your order and make one bulk order instead of multiple small orders. This trick also gives you time to think about what you actually need. The most environmentally friendly strategy to shopping is to buy less. So if you put something in your cart (like glow in the dark earrings, which I’ve never ever considered buying…) and then realize you really don’t need it, you’re all good!


Delivery Time

When checking out, allow extra time for the package to be shipped. Don’t select two-day delivery just because it’s offered. Go for “no-rush” shipping, which will not only allow the company to make deliveries efficiently, but could also save you some money! According to Amazon’s webpage, “Amazon Prime members can select FREE No-Rush Shipping and receive an order discount or a promotional reward towards a future purchase.”

No matter who you’re buying from, allow at least 5 days for delivery. This can reduce “carbon dioxide emissions by about 30% in the last mile of delivery” according to a MarketWatch interview with Josue Velazquez, a researcher for the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics.


Returns

With cheap and quick delivery, there’s the temptation to purchase a number of items and then return what doesn’t work. This approach has been furthered by fashion subscription services such as Stitch Fix that regularly ship clothes for customers to try on and return if unwanted. Returns effectively double the carbon cost of a product. Try to limit the number of times you purchase items you anticipate you may need to return. My general rule is that if I think there’s a good chance I’ll need to return something, which happens quite often given how petite I am, I’ll go buy it in the store. This can be hard, especially with in-store shopping being limited during COVID, but just remember, while the return may not cost you anything, it does have an environmental impact.


To sum up, Amazon has ethical issues associated with its operations. I’m personally going to be thinking twice about using the site in the future. But if I do end up placing an order with Amazon, I’ll be sure to allow plenty of time for delivery and I’ll be looking to limit the amount of waste associated with my purchases. But remember, Amazon is not alone in it’s services having pros and cons, so it’s important lean on the pros and minimize the cons wherever we make our purchases.

 

 

 

Sources:

Albrecht, L. (2019, December 20). Cautionary Tale This Holiday Season: Fast Shipping May Contribute to Climate Change. Retrieved from https://www.marketwatch.com/story/7-ways-to-reduce-the-carbon-footprint-on-your-amazon-orders-2019-11-11#:~:text=Customers%20who%20wait%20up%20to,Center%20for%20Transportation%20and%20Logistics

Ali, F. (2019, July 30). Amazon Prime Day 2019 Analysis in Charts. Retrieved from https://www.digitalcommerce360.com/article/amazon-prime-day-data/#:~:text=Amazon%20Prime%20Day%202019%3A%20%247.16%20billion&text=11%20each%20year.,roughly%20%243.58%20billion%20in%20sales.

DePillis, L. (2019, July 15). America’s Addiction to Absurdly Fast Shipping Has a Hidden Cost. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/15/business/fast-shipping-environmental-impact/index.html

Nickelsburg, M. (2019, November 5). Is One-Day Shipping Really More Eco-Friendly? Fact-Checking Jeff Bezos as Amazon Speeds up Delivery. Retrieved from https://www.geekwire.com/2019/one-day-shipping-really-eco-friendly-fact-checking-bezos-amazon-speeds-delivery/

Nguyen, N. (2018, July 22). The Hidden Environmental Cost of Amazon Prime’s Free, Fast Shipping. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/nicolenguyen/environmental-impact-of-amazon-prime

Nguyen, T. (2019, October 16). Amazon’s 1-Day Shipping is Convenient – and Terrible for the Environment. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/10/16/20917467/amazon-one-day-shipping-bad-for-environment

NPR. (2018, November 26). Super-Fast Shipping Comes With High Environmental Costs. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/11/26/670991367/super-fast-shipping-comes-with-high-environmental-costs

Wygonik, E., & Goodchild, A.V. (2012). Evaluating the Efficacy of Shared-use Vehicles for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions: A U.S. Case Study of Grocery Delivery. Journal of the Transportation Research Forum, 51, 111. Retrieved from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Evaluating-the-Efficacy-of-Shared-use-Vehicles-for-Wygonik-Goodchild/9c470d0384c43ee436ba112ed0b77f20f8f21042

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