Quantcast

Holiday Shoppers, the Planet Needs You to Take It Easy With the Next-Day Shipping

alvarez / E+ / Getty Images

By Jeff Turrentine

Back in 1966, the editors of Time indulged in a long-honored magazine tradition and published an essay in which experts made predictions about the future—in this case, the year 2000. By then, these experts prognosticated, a typical shopper "should be able to switch on to the local supermarket on the video phone, examine grapefruit and price them, all without stirring from her living room." But even so, they predicted, "remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop." Why? Because shoppers "like to get out of the house, like to handle the merchandise, like to be able to change their minds."


What these futurists failed to anticipate was that technology and capitalism, working in tandem, would end up not only catering to but actually intensifying the basic human desire to get whatever one wants while exerting as little physical energy as possible. These days, pretty much everybody with access to a computer and a credit card shops online, for everything from large household appliances to clothes to (yes) grapefruit. And the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is, unsurprisingly, the busiest time of year for internet retailers, who expect to rake in more than $123 billion this year—up from $106 billion in 2017.

Most of these purchases will arrive at consumers' doors in boxes, making much of their trip from warehouses and distribution centers via truck or van. UPS says that its famously brown-uniformed drivers delivered 700 million packages during the 2017 holiday season—more than two packages for every man, woman, and child in the country. For its part, the U.S. Postal Service expects to make about 900 million deliveries between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day—50 million more than it made last year during the same period.

The somewhat magical ability to press a button, wait a day, and then have somebody at your door handing you the thing you wanted makes it easy to ignore the fact that all of those trucks and vans bringing those packages emit a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Many companies, including IKEA and UPS, are already taking steps to reduce the pollution of their delivery services by moving to electric vehicle fleets, and that's certainly a positive development. But according to Miguel Jaller, an assistant professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of California, Davis, we need to address another factor in the equation: the mind-set and habits of consumers.

"While online shopping is definitely convenient, and there are many positive things that come with it, there's a price to the environment," said Jaller, who writes frequently about sustainable transportation systems. The convenience factor is causing us to consume more, but that's not the whole picture: We've now come to expect things like two-day shipping and no-questions-asked returns policies as consumer rights to be bestowed at minimal cost. Such thinking, Jaller said, keeps us from making a proper accounting of the externalized environmental costs incurred when retailers must prioritize speed and absolute customer satisfaction over efficiency—which, alas, is pretty much always.

The environmental cost of free two-day shipping www.youtube.com

This 2017 Climate Lab video, in which Jaller has a brief cameo, breaks down the problem. Online shopping actually has a smaller carbon footprint than traditional shopping at a brick-and-mortar store—until expedited shipping enters the picture. In their efforts to bring you your new smartphone case or pashmina scarf in less than 48 hours, retailers disrupt various processes designed to consolidate orders and maximize efficiencies. If a truck has to leave its distribution center only half full in order to meet a delivery deadline, it usually will. Very often that means dispatching two trucks to carry the load of one truck—and emitting twice the exhaust in the process.

And what if the pashmina scarf turns out to be the wrong color? You can almost always send it back to the seller at low or no cost. That's another truck delivery that needs to be made, going in the opposite direction. Are you going to order new items in different colors that are more to your liking? Of course you are! Two-day delivery is free! And so another truck is filled—perhaps to capacity, perhaps to half-capacity—to bring you your second purchase in just as speedy a fashion as the first. In this way, consumers are now using vehicle fleets in ways they were never meant to be used: as a means of trying on clothes and testing out goods.

What started out as a cool-seeming perk offered by a handful of major online retailers has today, thanks to market forces, become the industry standard. Companies "are caught up in a game where they're competing with each other," said Jaller. "And the way they're competing is by trying to outdo each other in offering this fast, almost free, delivery service. So they're incentivizing bad behavior on the consumer side."

Jaller applauds the steps that companies are taking to maximize fuel efficiency in their fleets, from discouraging left turns—a practice that UPS says cuts idling time and reduces its vehicles' CO2 emissions by more than 100,000 metric tons each year—to truck platooning, in which communications and sensor technology allows trucks to follow one another closely but safely on the highway, reducing their aerodynamic drag and boosting their mileage.

He worries, however, that "we're losing a lot of these gains and efficiencies at the delivery point: trucks idling while waiting for an establishment to be ready to receive the goods, or needing to go around the block several times because there's not enough parking." He's hopeful that more companies will come to see the wisdom of moving to an electric delivery fleet, now that so many zero-emissions vans and small trucks boast ranges of more 100 miles. (Studies show that 90 percent of parcel deliveries are made within a 100-mile range.)

But the biggest changes will be seen, Jaller said, when consumers "change their behavior to slow down companies' operations, so that they can be more efficient and optimize what they already have," instead of needing to build more warehouses, set up new delivery points, and buy more trucks—all just to make sure that you can get your stuff within 36 hours of ordering it.

So this holiday season, you might consider giving the planet a lovely gift: ordering multiple items per shipment (instead of just one at a time), double-checking sizes and colors before clicking "send," and opting for five-day delivery. This gift may seem small, but it'll mean a lot.

Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Offutt Air Force Base after flooding on March 17. U.S. Air Force / TSgt. Rachelle Blake

The historic flooding that devastated Nebraska last week has also submerged one third of an Air Force base, offering a further illustration of the threat posed to national security by climate change.

Read More Show Less
A regenerating stand of rainforest in northern Costa Rica. Matthew Fagan / CC BY-ND

By Matthew Fagan, Leighton Reid and Margaret Buck Holland

Tropical forests globally are being lost at a rate of 61,000 square miles a year. And despite conservation efforts, the global rate of loss is accelerating. In 2016 it reached a 15-year high, with 114,000 square miles cleared.

At the same time, many countries are pledging to restore large swaths of forests. The Bonn Challenge, a global initiative launched in 2011, calls for national commitments to restore 580,000 square miles of the world's deforested and degraded land by 2020. In 2014 the New York Declaration on Forests increased this goal to 1.35 million square miles, an area about twice the size of Alaska, by 2030.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Compassion Over Killing

By Cheryl Leahy

Do you think almond milk comes from a cow named Almond? Or that almonds lactate? The dairy industry thinks you do, and that's what it's telling the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

For years, the dairy industry has been flexing its lobbying muscle, pressuring states and the federal government to restrict plant-based companies from using terms like "milk" on their labels, citing consumer confusion.

Read More Show Less

By Jeremy Deaton

A driver planning to make the trek from Denver to Salt Lake City can look forward to an eight-hour trip across some of the most beautiful parts of the country, long stretches with nary a town in sight. The fastest route would take her along I-80 through southern Wyoming. For 300 miles between Laramie and Evanston, she would see, according to a rough estimate, no fewer than 40 gas stations where she could fuel up her car. But if she were driving an electric vehicle, she would see just four charging stations where she could recharge her battery.

Read More Show Less
d3sign / Moment / Getty Images

By Kris Gunnars, BSc

Common sense should not be taken for granted when people are discussing nutrition.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A fire erupted Sunday at a petrochemical plant in Deer Park, Texas. NowThis News / YouTube screenshot

By Andrea Germanos

A petrochemical plant near Houston continued to burn for a second day on Monday, raising questions about the quality and safety of the air.

The Deer Park facility is owned by Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC), which said the fire broke out at roughly 10:30 a.m. Sunday. Seven tanks are involved, the company said, and they contain naptha, xylene, "gas blend stocks" and "base oil."

"It's going to have to burn out at the tank," Ray Russell, communications officer for Channel Industries Mutual Aid, which is aiding the response effort, said at a news conference. It could take "probably two days" for that to happen, he added.

Read More Show Less
Poppy superbloom in Lake Elsinore, Calfornia on March 13. cultivar413 / CC BY 2.0

The hillsides dyed orange with poppies may look like something out of a dream, but for the Southern California town of Lake Elsinore, that dream quickly turned into a nightmare.

The town of 66,000 people was inundated with around 50,000 tourists coming to snap pictures of the golden poppies growing in Walker Canyon as part of a superbloom of wildfires caused by an unusually wet winter, BBC News reported. The visitors trampled flowers and caused hours of traffic, The Guardian reported.

Read More Show Less
The Humane Society of the United States uncovered a one-year pesticide test on 36 beagles contracted by Dow AgroSciences at a Michigan lab. The Humane Society of the United States / YouTube screenshot

A controversial pesticide test that would have resulted in the deaths of 36 beagles has been stopped, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the company behind the test announced Monday. The announcement comes less than a week after HSUS made the test public when it released the results of an investigation into animal testing at Charles River Laboratories in Michigan.

"We have immediately ended the study that was the subject of attention last week and will make every effort to rehome the animals that were part of the study," Corteva Agriscience, the agriculture division of DowDupont, said in a statement announcing its decision.

Read More Show Less