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The Environmental Cost of Amazon's Prime Day

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A Boeing 737-800 BCF (Boeing Converted Freighter) is marked "Prime Air" as part of Amazon Prime's freight aircraft during the 53rd International Paris Air Show at Le Bourget Airport near Paris, France on June 22. Mustafa Yalcin / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

It's Prime Day! The day when thousands of increasingly absurd items are discounted so deeply that you suddenly need items you never knew existed. Yes, I do need a hotdog shaped toaster next to me while I watch this Fast & Furious seven movie box set! And I need it in my house today!


The demand for faster and faster delivery times reveals the dark side of summertime's Black Friday.

And, it's not just Amazon getting in on the action and promising absurdly quick deliveries. Walmart, eBay and Target are all offering unbelievable bargains on fast, free shipments.

"The time in transit has a direct relationship to the environmental impact," said Patrick Browne, director of global sustainability at UPS, as CNN reported. "I don't think the average consumer understands the environmental impact of having something tomorrow vs. two days from now. The more time you give me, the more efficient I can be."

But UPS trucks are headed the wrong way on emissions. As CNN reported, UPS disclosed in 2017 that the e-commerce boom decreased the number of packages it dropped off per mile, leading to more trucks on the road and higher greenhouse gas emissions.

If shippers had more time, they could consolidate packages, which would reduce the number of cars and trucks required to deliver them. Warehouses could also cut down on packaging waste. The uptick in planes, trucks and packaging material in the name of one-day or same-day shipping has added congestion to cities, pollutants in the air, and cardboard to landfills, according to Buzzfeed News.

If UPS and other delivery chains could consolidate products and deliver them on one route to a bunch of homes, then buying from home could be a green way to shop. In fact, a University of Washington study published in the Journal of Transportation Research Forum found that grocery delivery could cut between 80 percent and 90 percent of carbon emissions compared to consumers driving to the store to shop for their items.

Yet, the efficiency changes immediately if items have to travel long distances and arrive immediately, according to the study's lead author, Anne Goodchild, as CNN reported. Then there are few opportunities for putting a batch of deliveries together.

"The efficiency and those benefits of delivery came from consolidation and sharing a big vehicle," Goodchild said. "And as we move away from that, if we move towards basically paying someone to make a trip for us, a lot of those benefits are eroded.

So far, customers don't seem to care. Amazon Prime's signature benefit is fast and free shipping — a perk that has ushered in more than 100 million subscribers who pay an annual $119 membership fee.

"The concept of Amazon Prime pushes us towards more emissions," said Dan Sperling, a professor at UC Davis, told Grist. "It makes the marginal cost of purchases very small, so you have motivation to buy more. And of course, that's what Amazon wants."

The low-costs and free returns also create an efficiency paradox — people not only start to consume more when prices are low, but they will buy 10 pairs of shoes and return nine of them, using more and more plastic foam, tape, and boxes, as Ozy reports.

While Amazon won't end prime day or next day deliveries or even same-day deliveries in select cities, they have acknowledged the impact of their practices and started several campaigns to reduce their emissions. It offers "Free No-Rush Shipping," which lets the consumer choose a slower delivery option and receive rewards on future purchases or an immediate discount towards eBooks, movies or Prime Pantry groceries. That option allows Amazon and its distributors to pack trucks more efficiently.

Earlier this year, Amazon also announced its Shipment Zero plan, which is "Amazon's vision to make all Amazon shipments net zero carbon, with 50% of all shipments net zero by 2030," according to its own press release.

Yet, Amazon is far from environmentally friendly. After all, it recently bought 20,000 trucks that run on fossil fuels and never announced plans to move towards electric vehicles, as CNN reported.

"I would not say [Amazon is] pretty environmentally friendly," said Miguel Jaller, the co-director of the Sustainable Freight Research Center at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, as CNN reported. "I would say less environmentally bad than others."

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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