This past Tuesday was Amazon Prime Day, a sale that gives Prime members huge discounts across a variety of items on the site. Unsurprisingly, customers bought — and they bought a lot too. Inc reported that 100 million Prime members purchased over 175 million items site-wide during the Prime day sales, numbers that have Black Friday and Cyber Monday beat.
Though sales like Amazon’s Prime Day are appealing to consumers, the concern regarding how large-scale sales like it impact the environment. An argument can be made for the idea that online shopping is less detrimental to the environment than traditional retail, but this is often untrue.
Amazon Prime’s two-day shipping is highly convenient to consumers, but don’t overlook how the service impacts the environment.
Shopping Online With Amazon Prime Not Necessarily More Sustainable Than Driving to the Store
It is true that shopping online yields a smaller carbon footprint for consumers, comparative to driving to the store in what MIT dubbs “traditional shopping.” However, that’s only true when the consumer doesn’t get rushed delivery, according to Vox.
The idea is that as consumers pile up on rushed delivery, there is an influx of delivery trucks on the road. UC Davis Assistant Professor Miguel Jaller, who studies sustainable transportation systems, corroborated this idea:
“Because some [companies] are offering really fast and rushed deliveries, that disintegrates the consolidation. Every individual is buying more and wanting those goods to be at their home really fast. That creates more vehicles, more traffic, and potentially more emissions.”
But beyond the influx of traffic, the emissions advantage for online shopping has a smaller window than you might think. Specifically, Jaller found that if delivery vans make less than about six stops on a trip, the emissions advantage disappears. And even with more stops per trip, there is potentially still more nitrogen oxide emitted.
Amazon Prime Day Adds to the Problem, Increasing Emissions
Prime Day only adds to the environmental damage, as hundreds of millions of customers order simultaneously and expect two-day delivery. The problem is so many consumers order individual items instead of consolidating. Consolidating products and having them delivered on one route rather than separate items to various addresses reduces the number of miles required for delivery.
UPS disclosed in 2017 that the boom in online shopping has decreased the number of packages dropped off per mile, leading to more trucks on the road, and therefore higher greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, carbon emissions can be as much as 35 times greater than they would be with a one delivery drip than for a fully-loaded delivery.
“The time in transit has a direct relationship to the environmental impact,” according to Patrick Browne, director of global sustainability at UPS. “I don’t think the average consumer understand the environmental impact of having something tomorrow vs. two days from now. The more time you give me, the more efficient I can be.”
Amazon Claims to Commit to Environmental Sustainability. People Call Bluff.
With Amazon being the market leader, it has a responsibility to minimize its negative impacts on the environment. The company has pledged to work towards sustainability. It announced a plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions on its deliveries by 2030 and share its carbon footprint numbers later this year. But people are unconvinced.
Employees have pointed out that the Amazon board rejected a motion to pass a climate proposal. Amazon filed to withhold its emissions numbers in Australia under the guise of protecting company trade secrets. The company has also turned its back on a commitment to double down on renewable energy.
Altogether, Amazon’s actions have led consumers to believe the company has something to hide.
As the need for companies to deliver quickly, getting to net-zero carbon emissions will be a tough task. Even for Amazon.
On the consumer side, time utility is valuable, so free two-day shipping with Amazon Prime is the go-to. For Amazon competitors, it’s a difficult perk to match. (Look no further than eBay.)
No doubt, Amazon will continue to improve its logistics. Perhaps one day the gold standard will be free one-day delivery — who knows. But consumers should most certainly consider the environmental tradeoffs.