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Is e-commerce more eco-friendly?

It is commonly believed that e-commerce is more eco-friendly than bricks-and-mortar retail, but is this true?

Most of us probably feel a twinge of guilt if we have to drive our car to the local shopping centre to buy just one carton of milk. But, similarly, we have no doubt all experienced a feeling of shock at the amount of packaging used to wrap one small item purchased online – sometimes flown from the other side of the globe.

An e-commerce retailer’s perspective

“I certainly wouldn’t say e-commerce is green per se, but I believe it is greener,” says Greg Slapp who, along with his wife Christine, runs Rainforest Agencies, an online business that owns several retail websites. Slapp has been in the web development business for 19 years and has co-managed Rainforest Agencies since 2005. “It’s simply a matter of degrees,” he says, “and e-commerce is probably a few degrees greener than bricks and mortar.”

Slapp’s business is managed from several rooms in his home, meaning he and his wife don’t need to drive to work. All products are sold and delivered in recycled cardboard boxes – “which would look dreadful in a retail outlet, where they’d need to instead be in glistening packaging,” he says.

“We have far less wastage than we would if we had a retail outlet, where stock would be damaged on shelves, then thrown out,” says Slapp. “We use a lot less energy and we don’t have to constantly produce and throw away point-of-sale materials and brochures. We don’t need display lighting, cash registers, illuminated building signage and air conditioning. The footprint of our infrastructure is far smaller.”

Similar supply chains

Like Slapp, Richard Mann, former CEO of SecurePay, says he is not convinced that one form of retail is significantly different to the other when it comes to environmental credentials.

“I would have thought a supply chain is a supply chain and the last mile of delivery, whether it’s completed by you driving to the shop or the item being delivered, possibly doesn’t make an enormous difference,” he says.

“Perhaps e-commerce opens up more opportunity to select from a greater range of goods and services and gives the consumer choice of how they want to shop from an environmental standpoint.”

In some cases e-commerce cuts out the middleman, but in many cases e-commerce is the middleman. Plus, a customer can buy products from numerous outlets at a shopping centre and drive them all home at once, rather than having them all delivered separately. On the flip side: those outlets all require staff, many of whom will drive to work each day. So, often the arguments for or against environmental friendliness cancel each other out.

Which has the greater carbon footprint?

Academic research tells us e-commerce deliveries use less primary energy and produce fewer CO2 emissions than traditional retailing. A study by the US-based Green Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, conducted in 2008 and updated in 2011, found that e-commerce showed around 30 per cent lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions compared with bricks-and-mortar retail.

Another study in 2009 at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University found that a typical van-based delivery produced 181g of CO2 per delivery, compared with 4,274g for an average trip to the shops and 1,265g for an average bus passenger trip to the shops. However, the same study found that for those who make infrequent shopping trips where they purchase many items at once, CO2 emissions per item could match online shopping.

Eco-friendly e-commerce initiatives

The environmental credentials of online shopping should continue to improve as e-commerce market leaders, such as Amazon and eBay, introduce new, eco-friendly options into their processes. If the top operators constantly reduce their CO2 output, it’s likely they will bring the rest of the market with them.

Amazon, for instance, has recognised the concern people feel around large amounts of packaging and has responded with a “Frustration Free Packaging” offer on eligible items. This means packaging that is minimal, recyclable and usually partly recycled.

In 2011, consumers also welcomed the news of a patent application awarded to Amazon that offered a slower but more eco-friendly delivery method, including delivery by hybrid vehicle and via a route that avoids major cities. Within this system, customers would also be able to purchase carbon-offset credits.

As an auction house, eBay has less control over how items are delivered. However, it offers its users an online guide to eco-friendly shipping materials.

As the e-commerce market continues to grow, leading operators both small and large will find ways to thrill their customers, not only with service and quality but also with the feel-good factor of greater environmental friendliness. It’s a point of difference, a unique selling proposition and a powerful marketing tool. And it saves the business money, too. That’s a win–win.

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