The Future of E(co)-Commerce

Are there greener skies ahead for online shopping and delivery?

January 2016

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It makes sense that e-commerce would be inherently eco-friendly. More people buying more products online means fewer cars clogging the roads to malls, downtowns and other retail venues. In fact, a study conducted in 2014 by Carnegie Mellon University’s Green Design Institute found that shopping online uses 35 percent less energy and produces fewer carbon dioxide emissions than traditional shopping. And a 2010 study from Heriot-Watt University Logistics Research Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland, found that consumers who drive to a store have to buy 24 items to equal the carbon footprint of just one item ordered online.

While all that sounds great, there’s evidence that online retail isn’t as environmentally sustainable as it could be. Global supply chains require long-distance transportation — container ships and airplanes require plenty of energy. And the global growth of cross-border e-commerce burns even more carbon-generating fuel.

With all this in mind, what’s needed to make e-commerce truly, deeply green? Tapping into the full capabilities of the online realm offers promise. Digital technology is already driving new efficiencies in logistics, such as machine-to-machine (or machine-to-truck) communication. Consolidating orders can reduce carbon emissions. On the packaging side, online retailers can reuse packaging and encourage customers (via monetary rewards) to return packaging for reuse or recycling to local shipping stores. Look for more of the same as consumers continue to demand supplier sustainability.

E-commerce retailers needing encouragement to green up their operations should consider these two studies:

  • According to Nielsen, 55 percent of global online consumers are willing to pay more for products and services from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact.
  • A May 2014 report by business and technology consulting firm West Monroe Partners found that more than half of consumers are willing to pay at least 5 percent more for products ordered online if they’re delivered sustainably. And 76 percent say they’d wait an extra day or more for what West Monroe called “climate-friendly” transport.

Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers generally have items shipped from distributors to regional warehouses where they are distributed to individual stores before reaching customers’ homes. Shipping products directly from distribution warehouses to customers would trim a link from the retail supply chain. E-commerce also could reduce overproduction or the production of low-demand goods by shipping only on demand. That would mean fewer trucks shuttling unsold inventory between warehouses.

These strategies aren’t merely carbon reducing; they can also be money saving. In other words, green in more ways than one.

Tell Us Your Opinion

  • Does sustainability affect your perception of e-commerce?

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