Critics Wary of E-Commerce Effects on Environment

Critics Wary of E-Commerce Effects on Environment

E-commerce saves trips to the mall, cutting down on gasoline used and pollutants emitted, so conventional wisdom suggests a burgeoning digital economy must mean big benefits for the environment.

Maybe not.

Texas A&M University geographer Daniel Sui and colleague David Rejeski of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., warn that society must also consider and be ready to deal with possible negative impacts of e-commerce, such as demands for increased electricity generation to power more computers or growing materialism on the part of consumers.

"Scholars and policy makers agree that the Internet's rapid development is changing our society in fundamental ways as we move into the 21st century," Sui said. "Perhaps the most conspicuous change brought by the Internet has been an emerging digital economy, as characterized by the growth of Web-based businesses to deliver goods and services on a global scale."

"Studies by the U.S. Department of Commerce indicate that e-commerce is becoming the new engine for economic growth, with 56 percent of U.S. companies using the Internet to sell their products" he observed. "By the end of next year, on-line retail sales may reach $40 (billion) to $80 billion."

So what's bad about all that economic growth? Well, there's history to consider: Sui and Rejeski maintain that the saga of human development is characterized by forward surges in technology, transforming the Earth's surface while rapidly degrading its environment.

"In theory, the new digital economy could generate positive environmental impacts, summarized under the headings of de-materialization, de-carbonization, and de-mobilization," Sui said. "The idea is that moving businesses on-line, marketing by pixels, can reduce the need to print catalogues, telephone books, newspapers and magazines."

Other environmental friendly consequences of increased e-commerce include cutting down on waste, limiting inventories and warehouse space, reducing the number of shopping centers, promoting recycling through on-line auctions of second-hand goods and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through growth of home-based work and shopping outlets.

"However, each potential positive effect of e-commerce is coupled with a potentially overwhelming negative impact," Sui said. "For example, more e-commerce increases the need for more energy-intensive computers, driving an ever-growing demand for electricity generation."

"The ease of point-and-click shopping can even contribute to materialism, goading on-line shoppers to buy even more goods than they ordinarily would," he observed. "And on-demand shopping can contribute to less efficient, more energy costly modes of freight transportation."

In fact, the Internet economy may prove to be a double-edged sword, Sui cautions, in part because of the so-called rebound effect.

"Because of rebound effects, past overall decreases in consumption of materials and energy have translated into increases in economic activity, rather than increases in environmental efficiency," Sui said. "For example, San Francisco's Bay Area is perhaps the most wired region in the entire world, but its traffic jams and environmental burdens as just as bad as other comparably sized metropolitan areas. And Silicon Valley has more Superfund sites than any other county in the U.S."

Sui and Rejeski's research indicates the need for more attention by information-age planners to the environmental impacts of consumers. They suggest that techniques employing non-linear dynamics and complexity theory may hold the best hope for understanding implications of e-commerce effects on their environment.

"The Web offers consumers quick, unparalleled access to goods and services, unlimited by space and time," Sui said. "As predicted by Bill Gates, we may be witnessing the emergence of a friction-free capitalism where business can be conducted at 'the speed of thought.'"

"But we must keep in mind that while problems of production tend to be industrial and local, problems generated by consumption can become problems for everyone, at an increasingly global scale," he observed. "Dr. Rejeski and I want to caution against treating the Internet as the Holy Grail for environmental salvation."