This article is sponsored by Sendle.
When it comes to the world of package delivery, we’ve been taught faster equals better, especially as e-commerce surges to new heights.
Thanks to the shift in consumer expectations led by big-box retailers’ promises of extreme ease, speed and savings, we’ve been conditioned to expect everything we buy online to show up on our doorstep in two days, one day or now. It’s a new norm that doesn’t raise many questions. New norms that deliver incredible convenience rarely do.
As odd as it may sound coming from someone squarely in the business of shipping, faster shipping isn’t always the smartest way to deliver. If not done in a sustainable way, it’s rarely the best choice for the planet. The reality is, our addiction to fast shipping has a hidden environmental cost.
The shipping and logistics industries, arguably the most critical components of that seamless e-commerce experience we all expect, are carbon-intensive. According to Boston Consulting Group, transportation activities account for 17 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And thanks to the long-term shifts driven by the COVID lockdown-fueled surge in online shopping, the World Economic Forum estimates we’ll see 36 percent more delivery vehicles driving around city streets over the next decade.
As the demand for faster shipping grows so, too, does the impact on the planet. Optimizing for speed means we have fewer opportunities to consolidate orders, which leads to less packages dropped off per mile, more trucks on the road and higher GHG emissions. It also means more packaging waste, as deliveries to one home are no longer grouped, but rather sent separately multiple times.
Air cargo, necessary in many cases for rushed delivery — particularly when long distances are involved — produces more than eight times the CO2 per kilometer of transportation than trucks. Amazon is quickly building its own air fleet to rival the likes of UPS and FedEx. With a reported 140-plus flights per day and growing, Amazon’s air cargo fleet is a crucial part of the company’s strategy to deliver one- and two-day delivery targets.
The competing demands for fast delivery and environmental responsibility
Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental burden that comes with our growing e-commerce habit.
Perhaps the most visible sign we can point to is packaging waste. A growing number of shoppers feel frustrated with the abundance of packaging waste — the oversized box filled with unnecessary Styrofoam padding used to deliver your new electric toothbrush. Or the piles of flattened cardboard boxes filling up the garbage room in your apartment building. According to Sendle’s own research conducted in 2020, 57 percent of consumers say they get frustrated with how much packaging comes with the products they buy. Conscious consumerism is on the rise, and according to IBM, nearly six in 10 consumers say they’re willing to change their shopping habits to reduce their environmental impact.
But there’s also a strong consumer demand and expectation for speed, adding pressure to businesses to deliver online orders faster or lose their hard-earned sales.
How can a business big or small meet such competing and counterintuitive demands?
Prompting consumers to think twice about fast shipping
Recent studies show that many consumers would be willing to make different shopping and shipping choices knowing their environmental impact.
One example is an initiative called The Green Button Project. It showed that 40 percent of consumers are willing to wait a little longer for their home delivery to ensure it’s shipped in the most energy-efficient way. Conducted by Josue Velazquez, a researcher from the Sustainable Logistics Initiative at MIT, the study prompted shoppers with information about the environmental impact of various delivery options.
As Velazquez told a reporter at the Huffington Post, “Providing an option that says 'same-day delivery is equivalent to killing 300 trees' compared with one that says 'if you wait three to four days, then it’s equivalent to killing 10 trees, and by the way we are going to plant 15'″ can really drive consumer behavior.
The test was rolled out to the customers of one of the largest retail companies in Mexico. The results offered a compelling indication that there’s a lot to be gained by e-commerce businesses that with consumers to better understand their individual impact, values and how to offer a shipping solution optimized for efficiency and customer preferences.
Taking responsibility for the impact of e-commerce logistics
Already a number of e-commerce companies prove that online shopping doesn’t have to hurt the planet.
Olive is a new market entrant that allows shoppers to combine fashion purchases from hundreds of retailers into a single home delivery. The company consolidates orders into one reusable box once a week to cut down on the number of individual shipments going out. It’s a great solution for heavy online shoppers who know they can wait an extra few days for their deliveries.
Sendle tackles the environmental issue of shipping by working with existing delivery networks to fill unused truck space to ensure every route is as efficient as possible. Sendle then offsets the emissions of every single package shipped by purchasing carbon credits through its partner South Pole. These credits support highly credible carbon projects around the world and the important work they do from wildlife conservation to reforestation. Since the company launched in 2015, Sendle has offset the carbon emissions associated with more than 13 billion miles of package delivery.
While Sendle serves small businesses with environmentally friendly shipping, Loadsmart brings solutions to larger retailers. Loadsmart offers a tool that gives companies more options and multiple bookable rates for managing entire truckload shipments. The software displays information about efficiency, cost-effectiveness and environmental sustainability tradeoffs so shippers can make decisions that reduce their carbon footprint and optimize their efficiency at the same time.
Electrifying the fleets of every single delivery company is the next major step to a more sustainable eCommerce industry, as EVs take us beyond carbon emissions avoidance, and remove would-be emissions before they start. It’s a change that’s already underway. Gas-powered fleets are slowly being replaced as the major carriers race to place orders with electric vehicle manufacturers. At this year’s Work Truck Show, where the nation’s truck and fleet makers gather to discuss trends, Daimler and Proterra announced a partnership on a new electric van optimized for local delivery, and Ford announced an electric Ford Transit, which runs in a range of delivery fleets. EV delivery is an example of a longer-term shift that stands to make a meaningful impact on the sustainability of our industry, and change can’t come fast enough.
Working towards a better balance
Whether it’s a "green button" approach to slow shipping, consolidated shipments, eco-friendly packaging, electric vehicle delivery or carbon offset shipping, there’s no silver bullet for a more sustainable shipping and logistics industry. But businesses serving the e-commerce boom have plenty of opportunities to make things better for our planet, our customers and our businesses as a result.