This article is sponsored by Sendle
The jury is still out on how much environmental benefit may come from the shift to remote work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fewer commuters and cars on the road are breaths of fresh air. But another trend has seen a boom from the pandemic: more delivery trucks bringing us the spoils of our online shopping addiction. E-commerce transportation accounts today for 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions but is on track to become 17 percent by 2050. How significant is 17 percent? Currently, global transportation activities (aviation, rail, shipping, heavy and light trucking) are responsible for about 17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
When considering the increased use of delivery trucks, the scale of the problem becomes clear. There are 9.1 million online retailers around the world, and 2.5 million of them are in the U.S. Included in these numbers is a league of new digital-first businesses ranging from side-hustlers to prominent direct-to-consumer brands. E-commerce brings unparalleled convenience and the ability to buy sustainable products directly from small businesses. But many companies aren’t considering, or taking responsibility for, the environmental shock of shipping merchandise to customers. Corporations, small businesses, consumers and the shipping industry as a whole must all be accountable and work together to reduce the environmental harms of e-commerce, mitigate further harm to the environment and find a more sustainable path forward.
From 2019 to 2020, e-commerce sales grew by 27.6 percent, accounting for 18 percent of all retail sales around the globe. During the pandemic, online shopping has thrived. One billion trees are needed to create a year’s worth of cardboard packaging. That’s an astounding 5,000 packages per second. The rise of e-commerce brings a parallel increase in its negative environmental impact. For each package shipped, there are visible environmental impacts (such as a cardboard box to recycle or plastic wrapping to discard) and an invisible footprint (such as the carbon dioxide emitted in transportation and delivery).
The International Panel on Climate Change warns that greenhouse gas emissions must be almost halved by 2030 to slow down global warming.
To reach this target, the e-commerce industry must first accept responsibility for its impact on the environment and take transformative industrywide action. Change is possible, but it will take massive communication and collaboration between shipping providers, businesses and consumers to move with purpose in the same direction.
The shipping and logistics industry
The transportation and logistics industry is the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions in the U.S., accounting for 29 percent of greenhouse gases.
The shipping and logistics industry can either proactively work to reduce its carbon emissions or navigate debilitating network disruptions caused by increasing sea level rise, severe tropical storms, inland flooding, drought and extreme heat events. It’s clear that urgent action is needed, and failure to address climate change will exact billions of dollars in additional costs each year for the industry. Implementing mitigation and adaptation strategies now is a far better option than addressing catastrophic disruptions and disasters in the future.
So, what can be done? Shipping providers and logistics companies can invest in environmental projects such as carbon-offsetting programs, transition to solar-powered electric vehicle fleets, switch to new fuel technologies, and launch green packaging strategies. These are some of the available strategies, but companies must invest in continued innovation for newer alternatives.
Sendle is leading the industry by offering 100 percent carbon-neutral delivery. Every year, Sendle’s investments enable it to support genuinely world-changing environmental initiatives. To find the dollar amount for its investments, the company calculates the CO2 emissions generated by every single package shipped in the previous year and then purchases carbon offsets from its partner, South Pole — a global firm that develops and implements comprehensive emission reduction projects and strategies. Sendle asks its community of small business customers around the world to vote on which projects the company will contribute to offset its carbon footprint. By involving its customers, Sendle has supported a variety of highly impactful environmental global projects such as the Boobera Native Forest Regeneration, Lower Mississippi Valley Reforestation, Madre de Dios Amazon Conservation, and the Myamyn Conservation projects. To date, the company has made more than 21 billion miles of package deliveries carbon neutral.
Sendle has set an ambitious goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030. To meet this commitment, the company must dramatically reduce the carbon emissions released in the shipping network, accounted for in its Scope 3 emissions. It will take massive collaboration between network partners and the community of customers to improve efficiency, introduce greener vehicles and try new sustainable product offerings.
The sharing economy model can also provide a way forward for building a more efficient shipping network without having to build more infrastructure and put extra delivery vehicles on the road. This model recognizes the benefits of cross-industry collaboration over ownership. Sendle uses the sharing economy model by tapping into existing providers and filling space in vehicles to ensure every trip is maximized. We can then pass operational savings along to our customers and offer small business owners cheaper and more sustainable shipping options.
However, while the shipping industry is a major player in the climate change crisis, the responsibility to reduce emissions does not solely fall on one industry or company.
E-commerce businesses, large and small
The onus is often on major players — mass retailers, shipping providers and delivery networks — to offset the negative environmental effects of their operations.
Today's consumers expect companies to use their corporate power for good, and they are vocal and proactive about these expectations. In late 2021, more than 750,000 people signed a petition demanding that Amazon provide a plastic-free packaging option at checkout. While more remains to be seen on Amazon’s packaging becoming plastic-free, major corporate action is essential to reach net-zero emissions, the environmental impact of small businesses — which make up 44 percent of economic activity in the U.S. — should not be overlooked either. Small businesses are often not afforded the same resources as big corporations and face more challenges in greening their operations. Sustainable products and services are often more expensive than mainstream options, creating a dilemma for owners who strive to be sustainable but face high costs to make these changes. Many small businesses — especially side-hustlers — have long received worse rates and services from traditional shipping companies.
Despite these obstacles, small businesses can still contribute to reducing the environmental harms of e-commerce. To do so, they deserve the tools and opportunity to build their dream businesses as sustainably and cost-efficiently as possible.
Fortunately, there has been rapid growth in services and suppliers that support small business owners in recent years. Small business owners can send packages using a carbon neutral shipping carrier such as Sendle, make the switch to sustainable packaging and lean on technology to understand their products’ footprint and identify steps to improve.
Small businesses can then help guide positive consumer action by incorporating messaging about their sustainable practices on their product descriptions and websites, via social media and other owned channels.
Corporations often come under fire for overemphasizing individual action in the climate crisis. This places an unnecessary burden on consumers and simultaneously provides a scapegoat for corporations to deflect responsibility. While individual action alone is not enough to halt climate change in its tracks, conscious consumer choices still matter.
Consumers seek out more sustainable products and paying attention to features such as ingredients, certifications and packaging. In a 2020 McKinsey survey, about 67 percent of all respondents and 75 percent of millennial consumers said that they consider sustainability before making a purchase.
When shopping online, here are a few ways to reduce the environmental impact:
- Support sustainable business practices by selecting carbon-neutral shipping.
- Select slower shipping methods as much as possible to increase the density of packages per route.
- Limit returns by making more thoughtful purchases.
Fixing the crisis together
The shipping industry, small businesses and consumers can all work together to reduce the harm of shipping while growing e-commerce businesses that are vital to an equitable economy. As the first 100 percent carbon neutral package delivery service in the United States and Australia, Sendle is proud to be a leader and pioneer in the global transition to sustainable shipping.
To get where we need to be, shipping companies can proactively work to reduce the carbon impact of their emissions, and e-commerce companies — from big corporations to small businesses — can listen to customers and adopt greener practices. Efficiency and sustainability go hand in hand. Consumers can practice more mindful consumption and support businesses that have sustainable products and shipping practices.
We saw how shipping networks, e-commerce businesses and consumers all worked together to quickly pivot and adapt to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. The same commitment to collaboration and innovation can help avoid more climate catastrophes and build the systems that truly serve the needs of both people and the planet. An environmental awakening across the entire e-commerce ecosystem couldn’t be more urgent.