How the Rise in Online Shopping Affects the Planet

workers in an Amazon shipping warehouse
Photo provided by JORDAN STEAD / Amazon
December 6, 2019

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday over and the holidays right around the corner, U.S. consumer activity is peaking for 2019. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, the U.S. Postal Service expects to deliver 15% of the entire year’s packages. With more consumers electing to do their shopping online than ever before, not only for gifts but for groceries and day-to-day items as well, Elizabeth DeSombre, Camilla Chandler Frost Professor of Environmental Studies, looks into the environmental impact of increased online shopping, why it can be difficult for consumers to keep the environment in mind, and what a green shipping industry might look like.    

Q: You were a founding member of the environmental studies department and teach some of its core classes, such as ES 214, Social Causes and Consequences of Environmental Problems, which is known on campus informally as “why good people do bad environmental things.” What’s your answer to this question? Do you think consumers are beginning to take into account broader costs in their shopping, such as environmental or labor costs?

Beth DeSombre: I wish it were the case that consumers are beginning to take the full social costs (which includes environmental costs) of things they purchase into account, but I see little evidence of that, except at the margin.

There are good reasons for that. You get all the benefit of your quick purchases of perhaps unnecessary stuff, and the social and environmental harms are felt far away in time and space by people and ecosystems you never know. It’s hard to feel like your online order of some heavily discounted item is a big contribution to that harm—because it isn’t; it’s all of our collective actions that add up, and if others don’t change their behavior, your action makes little difference. Acting in a way that protects the environment often means some level of personal sacrifice. And, sure, some people are (and should be!) willing to make those personal sacrifices because they may be small compared to the level of avoided harm. But most people are just trying to accomplish numerous daily things in a busy and constrained life, and the difference in cost between something shipped “free” and sold cheaply by an online retailer and having to go find it yourself in a more expensive local store, if that’s even an option, may be the difference between giving your kid a holiday present and not being able to.

It is, of course, better to make individual choices that cause less harm—if you can do without something or can support stores in your local area you would miss if they went away, great; if you don’t need quick shipping on something you’re ordering, choose slower shipping and have your purchases grouped and sent together. But we’re not going to solve systemic problems with individual actions, and focusing on what we, as consumers, can do misplaces the responsibility and decreases the pressure for larger-scale (and necessary) changes. We need better labor standards, and we need to ensure (by rules or taxes) that environmental costs are borne by those who are creating those harms, which would change the way products are made and shipped.

Q: What do you think keeps consumers from altering their behavior to think more sustainably? Is it possible, in your opinion, to appeal to consumers ethically, or is the only route to reducing the carbon emissions associated with online shopping through initiatives that improve efficiency, convenience, and cost?  

DeSombre: The deck is stacked against making good environmental choices. Environmental problems are externalities—which means they’re unintended, and unpriced, effects of something else you’re trying to do. Because the actions that cause environmental problems don’t cost more because of the problems they create, it is often more costly and less convenient—at least initially—to act in ways that are better for the environment. If you buy the product made with sustainably sourced materials and assembled by workers paid fair wages and benefits, it is going to cost more and may be harder to find. Not everyone can afford that or would choose to.

I’m unusual among environmentalists in that I ultimately don’t care about people making good environmental choices because they’re the right thing to do; I care that their behavior has the desired effect. Which is why I would rather that we, for instance, purchase sustainably harvested seafood because the store we’re shopping in only sells that kind, rather than because we each individually make the decision to look for and prioritize purchasing fish products certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. I want us to buy products made and shipped with a lower carbon footprint because industries are taxed for the greenhouse gases emitted (or required to reduce emissions) and therefore figure out new ways to create, produce, and deliver things that contribute less to climate change, rather than because we, as consumers, go through the complex calculations to figure out which things we do or buy are less harmful for the environment.

Q: With the rise of online shopping, consumers are increasingly purchasing groceries and other day-to-day items online. Is there an associated rise in packaging and fuel waste, or has the distribution shifted without fuel use or waste rising significantly? Are there any tips you have for online shoppers to lower their packaging waste or the fuel costs associated with their ordering?

DeSombre: There are huge environmental and social costs to online shopping. My guess is that more of the increased effects are about packaging than about emissions from fuel: Have you seen how much packaging is used for shipping one item? In the case of fuel, it’s not clear that buying online uses orders of magnitude more fuel because if you’d otherwise be driving to a store, having someone drive your purchase to you may not be that much worse. On the other hand, the convenience (and low cost) of online shopping probably encourages people to buy more stuff than they otherwise would have, so all of the environmental costs of producing and transporting that “more stuff” increase. And we shouldn’t forget the labor implications across the entire commodity chain, from extraction of resources to manufacturing (frequently overseas, in places with low labor standards) to the crews working in terrible conditions with few protections aboard ocean vessels that transport raw materials and finished products to the workers, even in the United States, picking and packing and driving those purchases to our doors.

I’m all about systemic changes. So, yes, of course: If you don’t need that package quickly, allow for slower shipping and group your purchases. But what we really need are to work for things like European-style rules that require producers or retailers to take back all packaging waste, which will dramatically reduce how much packaging is used, and the reusability and recyclability of it. We need to increase disposal costs for waste and put prices on carbon (implicitly, by requiring reductions, or explicitly, through taxes), so that the actual environmental costs of all this stuff and transportation and packaging are actually reflected in the prices we pay and the choices we make.

Q: Your research focuses heavily on shipping, ocean and atmospheric issues, and the protection of the global commons. Shipping currently accounts for approximately 4% to 5% of human-caused carbon emissions, and some researchers say that number could be as high as 17% by 2050. Is there any way to slow or even stop that increase?

DeSombre: Greenhouse gas emissions from shipping aren’t even the main environmental problem that shipping causes. The primary fuels used are extremely dirty, and local air pollution problems in ports and places ships pass through are terrible. Ecosystem disruption and harms to endangered species also result from shipping.

Greener shipping is both possible and in progress. There are efforts to capture and remove some of the emissions from low-quality fuels. There are increasing options—or even requirements—for ships to plug in to (cleaner) electricity while in port instead of burning their own (dirtier) fuel. There are experiments with biofuels or other greener forms of energy. Returning to the use of sails on ships would help. And, as with driving cars or trucks, ships that travel more slowly use less fuel per distance traveled, which thereby decreases environmental harm.

All of these things have costs and mean that transporting things will become more expensive. That makes sense: It’s not like dirtier shipping wasn’t causing costs for someone; those costs just weren’t felt by the people shipping or purchasing goods. But no one likes increased costs, and so businesses and even consumers fight against them. My current research project (which is part of a multiyear, multinational research collaboration on greening the shipping supply chain) is looking at the role that ports play in requiring or incentivizing greener shipping. That happens because of public pressure or government requirements to decrease the environmental problems that shipping causes.

Q: Considering the yearly increase in both maritime shipping and online shopping, what are you optimistic about in terms of reducing carbon outputs?

DeSombre: It’s hard to be optimistic about efforts to prevent climate change these days (and I say that as a fundamentally optimistic person). All the news points to more dramatic effects of climate change, happening more quickly than even our direst predictions had expected. And right now, the world’s efforts—undermined by the United States’ departure from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change—are woefully inadequate compared to what needs to happen. But it does feel like we’re entering a moment of greater public engagement on this issue around the world, and even in the United States subnational governments and institutions (like Wellesley College) are stepping up to make greenhouse gas emission reductions commitments even when not yet required by the national government to do so. Those collective commitments or rules are what will reverberate across commodity chains to ultimately make producing and buying and shipping things greener.

Since I think this issue is not going to be meaningfully addressed by any individual action, I draw my optimism from efforts to change policy, structures, and institutions. In the area of shipping, there are some signs for hope: international, national, and subnational rules and incentives that are starting to make shipping greener and safer. We know how to do it: We just need to be willing to make those systemic changes.

Photo: Workers in an Amazon shipping warehouse.