China's Singles Day – and the American version, Black Friday (or maybe more accurately, Cyber Monday) – each last just 24 hours, but the environmental impact of such shopping extravaganzas persist for years, according to reports.
Couriers and delivery firms handled more than one billion packages during this year’s Singles Day, up 35% from last year; Alibaba's logistics arm, Cainiao, alone will deliver 657 million packages. U.S. sales and their corresponding shipping commitments are not expected to lag too far behind – relatively, and the same can be said for the carbon footprint associated with such shopping.
The e-commerce aspect of these massive shopping days – as distinct from the practice of traditional brick-and-mortar retail – seems to give way to more environmentally sound practices. This is something Amazon happily (and very biasedly) touts on its own website: "Online shopping is inherently more environmentally friendly than traditional retailing. The efficiencies of online shopping result in a greener shopping experience than traditional retailing." But is that entirely accurate?
The answer, experts say, depends on a host of variables, including the type of vehicles used for deliveries, the distances driven, the number of products per shipment, the rate of product returns, and the environmental cost of the packaging.
Consider the actual delivery of online-purchased goods. As CNN Money noted earlier this month, a delivery truck, for example, packed full of Amazon.com packages and following an efficient route, consumes far less fuel per package than an individual consumer does if he were to drive to the brick-and-mortar store to make a single purchase. That is not a uniform rule, though.
The Logistics Research Center at Heriot-Watt University conducted a carbon audit of conventional versus online shopping in 2009. They found that while "neither home delivery nor conventional shopping has an absolute advantage, on average home delivery is likely to generate less [carbon] than the typical shopping trip." But Jason Mathers, a senior manager at the Environmental Defense Fund, says that is far less true if the deliveries are rural, with stops father apart. He says that delivering online purchases by truck in rural Connecticut, for instance, is "hardly the greenest way to shop."
As researchers from the University of California, Davis, the University of Delaware, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found in recent years, with consumers' increasing reliance on e-commerce shopping, transportation emissions are on the rise. They suspect that online shopping and delivery services are a primary contributor to increases in transportation emissions over the past several years despite the incentives for delivery services to find the most efficient routes to keep fuel costs (and emissions) down.
Also worth considering: The packaging materials, a significant amount of which consists of cardboard and various types of plastic. While cardboard is highly recyclable, the vast amount of it that is being used and disposed of, it is hardly sustainable.
According to a February 2016 New York Times report, entitled, E-Commerce: Convenience Built on a Mountain of Cardboard, 35.4 million tons of containerboard were produced in 2014 in the United States alone, and e-commerce companies were among the fastest-growing users. Moreover, even though recycling is a markedly positive initiative, it requires water and energy consumption, and transportation of the materials to recycling facilities, which generates emissions.
Still yet, there is shoppers’ insatiable urge to consume growing amounts of products, and on shopping days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, this largely takes the form of electronics. The Consumer Electronics Association has noted in the past that roughly 75 percent of Americans buying gifts during the holiday season will purchase consumer electronics, including laptop computers, iPads, smart phones, and televisions.
The unique characteristics of electronics production, consumption, and disposal make these mass-shopping days particularly problematic. Demos, an American public policy organization, cites a number of electronics-specific elements – namely, the short product life-spans and rapid turnover in consumer electronics; design and materials complexity, global supply chains, and insufficiently regulated recycling and e-scrap markets; and the high toxicity of many materials used in electronic devices, and the adverse health and environmental impacts of poorly regulated e-waste disposal, materials salvage, and recycling-for-reuse – as some of the most pressing aspects of such widespread consumption of these products.
And this is something Apple can attest to. When the tech giant analyzed the carbon cost of an iPad, it found that transportation and packaging ranked low on the list – amounting to just upwards of 10 percent. With this in mind, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Mathers notes that if environmental sustainability is your goal, the channel through which you buy-online or from a brick and mortar store-is relatively irrelevant.
Consumers wanting to be eco-friendly, he says, should instead focus on other issues, particularly when it comes to electronics. “Ask yourself: Do I really need to buy this, at all? If not, you've saved yourself and the planet heap of carbon right there. If yes, do you really need to buy it new? Buying a product used, he says, will save energy, no matter whether you buy online or in a store.”