Buyers’ remorse: How the rush in online shopping hurts the planetAmid Black Friday and the COVID-19 pandemic, e-commerce has surged — but do consumers know the carbon emissions that can come with that?

Op-ed - Nov. 27, 2020 - By Maddy Ewing

Published in The Globe and Mail (November 27, 2020)

Delivery truck and parcels

Photo: Roberta Franchuk, Pembina Institute

It’s that time of year again, even if it’s a year unlike any other: Black Friday sales have begun, launching the holiday shopping season. Shoppers may be seeking to limit physical contact, but they’re still looking to get a bargain, prepare for the gift-giving season and help keep businesses afloat. So, while Canadians are taking precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19 by shopping online, e-commerce sales – which were already on the rise before the pandemic – are now skyrocketing.

In the first three quarters of the year, Canada Post reported parcel volumes increased by 24.5 per cent. That number will likely soar now: According to FedEx Express Canada, 35 per cent of Canadians who have never done holiday shopping online plan to do so this year.

But as the vast systems of e-commerce and shipping kick into high gear to allow millions of deliveries to be made on time, and as more Canadians develop online shopping habits, we should also be thinking about the choices we’re making as consumers when we click the checkout button, and how they affect the environment.

The impact of 'last-mile' emissions

It is increasingly being taken for granted that, once we click “buy” on a new pair of sneakers, they should arrive at our door quickly. But we’re not thinking nearly as much about the environmental impact of that delivery – specifically, how far it had to go and how quickly it had to get there.

In Canada, transportation-related emissions represent about 25 per cent of all emissions, and delivery vans doing that final run between the depot and your home – often called the “last mile” – are particularly emissions-heavy. In the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, for example, last-mile vans each produce an estimated 24 to 53 kg of carbon emissions a day. When calculated over a year, this is equivalent to the output of three passenger vehicles.

To improve air quality and reduce their carbon footprint, delivery services, freight companies and retailers have started to identify various ways they can reduce emissions, such as adopting electric vehicles, piloting cargo bikes, using off-peak hours to avoid congestion and leveraging artificial intelligence to improve efficiency. The Urban Delivery Solutions Initiative, a new business coalition that aims to tackle urban freight emissions, has early involvement from Canada Post, UPS, Purolator and Fresh City Farms, for instance.

Done right, online shopping can have a lower carbon footprint than brick-and-mortar stores, since it doesn’t require travel by individual cars. However, this benefit can be eroded when consumers opt for fast delivery options, especially same-day or next-day options. In these cases, businesses and delivery companies are given too tight a timeline in which to ensure that each truck leaves full and on the most efficient route, which can also force a shift to higher-emitting modes of transport, such as air. In order to keep up with the surge in rushed delivery, UPS had to add 11 planes to its U.S. fleet last year. Before buying, we should assess whether we need that item urgently.

Multiple orders placed with the same company can also cause problems. Consumers should try to keep items in their basket until they have a full order, and thereby consolidate these shipments into a single order so that delivery vans don’t have to make several trips and wasteful packaging can be reduced.

Some companies are promoting such consolidated deliveries by offering discounts. Amazon, for instance, has incentive programs to encourage consumers to subscribe for monthly delivery of essential items.

After all, Canadians want climate action. Many consumers – 49 per cent, according to PwC Canada’s 2020 Consumer Insights Survey – expect businesses to be accountable for their environmental impact. If that’s important, we should let businesses know that with our actions.

Innovative solutions

Businesses can draw on a multitude of affordable solutions to reduce the environmental impact of deliveries. Some are already in place or are being tested. These include switching to cargo electric-assist bikes (the Roncesvalles Business Improvement Area in Toronto and Send It Courier ran a recent pilot, for instance) or electric vehicles (Purolator is testing this option in Toronto and Montreal, for example). Companies can offer a “green shipping” option, or they could simply make the lowest-carbon option the default. Different levels of government are also looking at policies that would support these kinds of initiatives.

With industry partners innovating and governments looking to accelerate emission reductions, there is an enormous opportunity within the urban-delivery sector to have an impact. Canadian consumers are powerful drivers of change. By educating ourselves on the environmental consequences of different delivery methods and choices, we can be more mindful when making selections going forward and help bend the curve on carbon emissions while shopping online.


Maddy Ewing

Maddy is an analyst with the Transportation and Urban Solutions team at the Pembina Institute, based in Toronto.


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