Why you should care
That speedy Amazon Prime delivery comes with a web of invisible social costs.
You’re running a half-marathon in two months and need new sneakers, so you’re roaming the online frontier of the promised land, aka Amazon, and notice your favorite author’s latest book listed along the side during checkout. So you add that to your cart, cursing the data gods, and a satisfying click confirms your order will arrive in two days. But wait, you’ve been looking for a new lamp too, so now it’s time to start on order No. 2.
Amazon Prime has saved many frantic consumers, delivering forgotten presents or last-minute Halloween costumes, and its convenience keeps expanding: Members can also get same-day and one-day delivery options. But touch-of-the-button convenience adds to traffic congestion, carbon emissions and car accidents — “social costs” that consumers and companies don’t directly pay for, according to Miguel Jaller, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of California, Davis, who specializes in freight and sustainable transportation. So, Mr. Bezos, I propose the following: Help save the planet by telling Prime customers that they’re allowed one order a month.
Sure, it sounds like the opposite of convenience, but there’s logic to the notion of fewer deliveries. First, quick-turn orders create transport inefficiencies, because their consolidation is less feasible on shorter timetables, which means more vehicles get deployed to deliver the same amount of products. Longer wait times make consolidation easier, says Jaller.
If people don’t need that yoga mat tomorrow, they might opt for a slower delivery after seeing the environmental impact that faster shipping entails.
Then there’s the “efficiency paradox” of e-commerce. When companies operate so efficiently that costs to consumers stay low, people end up consuming more. With free returns, why not buy 10 pairs of shoes and return the nine you dislike? Shoppers buy the same number of products across multiple individual purchases online compared with when they shop in-store, where they buy, on average, 2.5 items, according to Vend’s 2018 Retail Benchmarks Report. Think of all the packaging, plastic foam and plastic wrap that gets used for all the millions of one-off online purchases.
Of course, Amazon might not be keen to take the pedal off its one-day delivery model, which has become its trademark. And the company is already rolling out sustainability initiatives — one is “FREE No-Rush Shipping,” which lets customers earn future discounts or rewards in exchange for slower delivery. In February, Amazon unveiled “Shipment Zero,” which aims for half of Amazon deliveries to attain net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, according to an Amazon spokesperson’s statement. What’s more, Amazon plans to release its own carbon report later this year for the first time. “In operations alone, we have over 200 scientists, engineers and product designers dedicated exclusively to inventing new ways to leverage our scale for the good of customers and the planet,” the statement said.
But Amazon pays a premium to provide convenience. It makes a low-profit margin on many products due, in part, to labor and delivery costs, says Jaller, effectively subsidizing free shipping with huge sales volume. So even if once-a-month delivery is too extreme, smart alternatives could offer new incentives to cut emissions and keep customers happy. One way? Be transparent about the carbon impact of purchases to the customers themselves, like McDonald’s is with calories. At checkout, Amazon could show buyers the carbon footprint — or “life cycle” — of each delivery option with the product being bought, Jaller suggests. If people don’t need that yoga mat tomorrow, they might opt for a slower delivery after seeing the environmental impact faster shipping entails.
Prime customers could even get a monthly email reporting how their carbon footprint from orders stacks up against that of others in their region. Signaling this status could be a motivator — like fuel-efficient stickers for cars, says Deepak Rajagopal, an associate professor at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Another wild idea? An app or browser extension that forces items to sit in shopping carts for 24 hours before being processed, Rajagopal suggests.
But limiting purchasers to less frequent buys could also eliminate some sales, Rajagopal warns. Just as people wait five minutes when they’re angry to avoid making a comment they’ll regret — only to later realize they don’t need to say it anymore — factoring in a delayed delivery might sap the motivation to buy. Or buyers could seek brick-and-mortar solutions for an immediate purchase craving.
Still, there are numerous ways to reframe incentives that could help reduce the carbon footprint of e-commerce. One thing experts like Jaller and Rajagopal agree on is that public pressure is needed to move the needle. Companies like Amazon have a vested interest in their public image and will change if they must to retain their competitive edge.
This means that investors, regulators and customers can make a meaningful impact — and, for the sake of the planet, it’s high time they deliver.