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Ecommerce and the Environment

What is Ecommerce?

Ecommerce refers to the sale and purchase of goods online as opposed to in a brick and mortar store. Whilst ecommerce has been slowly growing since its first transaction in 1994, the pandemic saw a huge boom in ecommerce purchases, with Brits spending £113 billion online in 2020, rising by 48% from the year before (according to this Ofcom report dated June 2021). So, with this growth showing very little sign of slowing, shoppers have begun to question what impact ecommerce may have on the environment in comparison to traditional shopping. WIth these questions being raised, it is important to look at the key factors that most impact the environment through this change in the supply chain. 

Key Factors

Transportation

Transportation has the potential to have one of the largest negative effects on the environment, based on more deliveries equating to additional journeys and therefore higher levels of emissions given off by the delivery vehicles. This can also be compounded with the increasing demand for immediacy spurred on by services such as Amazon normalising next-day and same-day delivery services, an immediacy which can sometimes lead to only partially filled freights being loaded.

This being said, whilst on the surface ecommerce may appear to increase carbon emissions, it should also be compared with the environmental impact of consumers making individual journeys to an equivalent brick and mortar store, compounded with the emissions produced by the stores own delivery of product.  It is also important to note that ecommerce stores have begun to encourage item consolidation for multiple orders (consigning all of the ordered items together into as few deliveries as possible) alongside greater supply chain integration to better optimise delivery routes.  Many courier companies are now also beginning to offer carbon neutral freight both through the use of electric or hybrid vehicles, and by offsetting their emissions through the planting of new tress and using green energy sources.

Transportation

Packaging

The boom in online shopping also leads to a boom in the packaging required for shipping the products. This often leads to products arriving to customers in two sets of packaging; it’s initial packaging for selling off the shelf, combined with external packaging for shipping, essentially doubling up on the waste that is left over from each individual order. Alongside this additional packaging for shipping, the immediacy of next day delivery services has also led to an increase in customers purchasing only a single item at a time, instead of buying in bulk or saving up for a larger order.

Between these two issue, many customers then recess products in a wild excesses of packaging, particularly in regard to small items being packed into large boxes amongst vast quantities of void filling.  This is another issue which is being further compounded by the sense of immediacy that many consumers are beginning to feel whilst online shopping. The increase in demand for packaging also led to a nationwide cardboard shortage which first began at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and continues to have a knock on effect across the packaging industry, with suppliers facing long lead times and a shortage of raw and recycled materials required.

Many companies have identified this growing problem and have begun to implement ways in which to cut down on their packaging usage. In 2008, Amazon first launched their Frustration Free Packaging programme to encourage retailers to use 100% recyclable and easy to open products which can be shipped in their original packaging. This helps to tackle a myriad of issues including over-packaging, packaging which is difficult to open, and the overall environmental impact of the packaging itself.  This is used alongside the previously mentioned order consolidation in order to deliver as many items as possible in a single delivery, preferably in a single shipping box.

Ecommerce Packaging

Returns

Once a product has been delivered, that isn’t always the end of its journey in regards to packaging waste and transportation emissions. If an item is received damaged, faulty, or otherwise unwanted, it must then make the return journey. This therefore leads to the potential for even more packaging waste if the items need to be freshly repacked. There is also the additional transport emissions that come from returning the products to a nearby store or potentially driving to a collection point.

This is again an issue which has been identified by retailers, with many sending goods in returnable packaging, such as resealable mailing bags and postal boxes. There has also been an increase in local collection hubs, with a variety of companies offering collection from post offices and local stores. In addition to this, companies such as Amazon and Hermes have begun to introduce parcel lockers which are available 24/7 and appear outside many shops and supermarkets. This therefore gives the customer a much greater choice for returning their items, whilst also making most collection points within a walking distance, or in a convenient position to minimise any unnecessary additional transport.

The Future of Ecommerce

Future of Ecommerce

Many of the steps to take to tackle these issues are already being considered and implemented by ecommerce businesses, from paperless invoicing and digital integration of the supply chain to rightsized and sustainably sourced packaging. The only lasting hurdle which is likely to be more difficult to be overcome is the expectations of consumers. Ecommerce sales show very little sign of slowing, let alone declining, and customers have become more impatient than ever to receive goods in as little time as possible, even if this means being shipped in separate consignments. It would seem that the best way to combat this in the future would be to try and ensure the additional environmental impact is being offset during the transport, packaging, and return processes.

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