Convenience and consternation: what’s the environmental impact of Amazon shipping?

An Amazon Prime package, observed in its wild habitat.

Seattleites have a wildly conflicted relationship with Amazon. We (like most of the country) love Amazon for bringing any product we can dream of straight to our doorsteps. And Amazon has undeniably brought thousands of jobs to the city. But, there’s always a flip side: while Amazon has brought jobs to Seattle, as a company they are famously un-civic-minded, and the enormous growth of the company has contributed to the myriad problems associated with rapid growth (traffic congestion and unaffordable housing, to name a couple). And the convenience that allows us to have Amazon deliver anything to our houses also drives a concern that maybe it’s a little too convenient, driving overconsumption and waste. So, how guilty should you feel about ordering your household basics on Amazon (or, online more generally)?

As usual, the answer to this question is somewhat difficult to answer. Lots of studies have attempted to model whether deliveries emit more or less carbon than a consumer driving to a store. But, these models involve making a lot of assumptions, which can significantly change the math. For example, how should you consider the emissions of an errand that is accomplished along a commute route, thus creating a minimal additional carbon impact beyond the commute itself? Methods for truck routing also have a major effect on carbon emissions. If trucks are optimally routed and can carry a large load of deliveries, then these trips can be significantly more efficient than individual consumers making trips to a store themselves. Smaller trucks that make many trips back to a central warehouse can be significantly less efficient than individual consumers trips to a store. However, these assumptions are key, and consumer choice has a major impact on which of these assumptions are most true, giving us a framework for making the best possible set of choices when ordering online.

The most important choice you can make as a consumer is NOT to pick the quickest shipping option, even if it’s free. Choosing ground shipping will result in significantly fewer carbon emissions than an overnight option that will definitely involve your package being flown on an airplane. I also recently found out about an Amazon option to choose your “Amazon day.” If you’re a Prime member, you add items to your cart as usual and can pick Amazon day as your shipping option. Then, all of your items are collected up and come on the same day every week, rather than all spread out. This seems like a great way to get the convenience of Amazon Prime ordering, while reducing the impact of having multiple deliveries in the same week.

Another element of online shopping to be cognizant of is how easy online shopping makes it to buy more stuff, some of which we don’t even necessarily want. According to this article from the Sierra Club, 33 percent of online purchases are returned, while only 7 percent of in-store purchases are. While it’s tricky to know if things will fit if you buy them online, I’ve found that it helps a lot if I buy clothes online from brands where I know the sizing and general style aesthetic from in-store shopping. Then it’s much less likely that I’ll buy something that doesn’t fit me or that I think looks weird when I actually get it at my house. Additionally, if you’re not sure if you really want something, you can add it to your cart and then let it languish there for a week; if you’re still thinking about it then, that’s a good sign that it’s something you’ll actually use!

One final consideration is the packaging that products are delivered in. Since we don’t usually have a choice over what packaging is used to ship things we order online, there are limited measures we can take to reduce or change the packaging of products. But, some brands are better than others; for example, for some products Amazon offers a “frustration free packaging” option, which brings items to you in cardboard packaging that is easier and more minimal than many plastic packaging formats. Packaging is also an opportunity to use your social media accounts for good; pointing out ways that companies can improve their packaging on social media is one of the places that a company might actually be able to respond to consumer feedback, since it’s a fairly simple business practice to change with the right incentives.

In the case of shipping, I’m happy there’s a clear guide to better consumer behaviour on shipping: choose ground shipping, don’t buy stuff online you wouldn’t buy if you had to go to a store and when possible, choose brands and packaging options that maximize cardboard packaging over plastic. Happier, less guilty online shopping awaits!

One thought on “Convenience and consternation: what’s the environmental impact of Amazon shipping?

  1. I will use your tip about saving stuff in my cart to ship all at once. It stresses me out when I have multiple things coming on many different days! Duh. I will change my mentality that I must have it now!

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