The Hidden Costs of Absurdly Fast Shipping

Super-fast deliveries are convenient, but the environment pays.

July 16, 2019

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—In May, Amazon announced that millions of items are now available for same-day delivery for Prime subscribers, and other retail competitors had no choice but to make similar offers. However, speedy delivery isn’t possible without some cost to the environment, and retailers are trying to mitigate it without turning customers away, reports KPLR-TV in St. Louis.

“The time in transit has a direct relationship to the environmental impact,” said Patrick Browne, director of global sustainability, UPS. “I don’t think the average consumer understands the environmental impact of having something tomorrow versus two days from now. The more time you give me, the more efficient I can be.”

In theory, e-commerce is greener than a bunch of shoppers making personal trips in their own cars. Consolidating products and delivering them on one route to a bunch of homes requires fewer miles on the road.

A 2012 study by University of Washington professor Anne Goodchild found that grocery delivery can cut between 80% and 90% of carbon emissions compared to consumers going to pick up their items on their own. But, she said, that calculus changes significantly if items are coming from further away and must be shipped immediately, which creates fewer opportunities to lump deliveries together.

“The efficiency and those benefits of delivery came from consolidation and sharing a big vehicle,” Goodchild said. “And as we move away from that, if we move towards basically paying someone to make a trip for us, a lot of those benefits are eroded.”

Miguel Jaller is co-director of the Sustainable Freight Research Center at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. He found that if a delivery van makes less than about six stops on a trip, the emissions advantage disappears. In 2017, UPS reported that the e-commerce boom had decreased the number of packages it dropped off per mile, leading to more trucks on the road and higher greenhouse gas emissions.

In the worst-case scenario, with one delivery per trip, the carbon emissions can be as much as 35 times greater than they would be for a fully loaded delivery van. That doesn’t happen very often, but contracted last-mile courier services, such as Amazon Flex and Walmart’s Spark Delivery, may deliver only a few orders at once, often in a personal vehicle or small van. What’s more, many consumers are ordering online and still driving to the store, which puts more cars on the road.