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PERSPECTIVES

E-commerce and the environment: Convenience vs carbon



US e-commerce sales reached $870 billion in 2021, a 14.2% increase over 2020 and a 50.5% increase over 2019, according to Forbes. While online shopping might feel better for the environment than commuting to brick-and-mortar stores, all is not as it seems.

 

QUICK TAKES

  • The pandemic is estimated to have contributed an extra $218.53 billion to e-commerce’s bottom line during 2020 and 2021. (Digital Commerce 360)

  • Amazon delivered 4.2 billion packages in 2020, up 127% from its 1.9 billion 2019 total. (Statista)

  • 91% of packaging waste is sent to landfills and/or into the environment. (Suppychain.edf)

 

It’s no surprise that shopping online surged during Covid. The decades-long shift toward online shopping went into overdrive as we all ordered everything from food to pharmacy items to pet grooming services delivered directly to our homes.


The same Forbes report notes that despite this exponential growth, the US is still in the early stages of digital disruptions, with e-commerce representing just 13% of all retail sales. China, on the other hand, is inching toward half of its retail sales being executed online.


It seems intuitive that cloud transactions would be more environmentally friendly than terrestrial transactions, but it’s not that simple. To meet the demand, delivery companies, such as Amazon, FedEx, UPS and food delivery services, wrapped millions of purchases in layers of cardboard and plastic and hired thousands of new drivers to bring them to our doorsteps. Now, cities, climate scientists and companies are trying to figure out the consequences for the planet.


“This is so much more complicated than, ‘E-commerce is better than brick and mortar,’” said Dr. Andrea Chegut, director of the MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab. “We’re not on a good trajectory, because everyone is using both strategies [brick-and-mortar and online]. So, on the aggregate, there will be more emissions.”