Keeping e-Commerce Environmentally Friendly—What Consumers Can Do

By Miguel Jaller, Anmol Pahwa, Seth Karten | December 1, 2020 | Transportation and Climate Blog by UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies

With more states and individuals observing stricter limits on in-person shopping, and with holidays coming, what can we do to limit the environmental and societal impact of online shopping? And even beyond this moment, how do we minimize the harm—or maximize the benefit—of online shopping to society and life on our planet?

The short answer: Buy what we need, and do what we can to allow packages to be consolidated for the most efficient delivery routes, so the fewest miles possible are traveled for each package brought to the door.

So what does this mean for us as consumers? Factors that increase the number of items per vehicle mile of travel in a delivery or shopping trip will reduce the pollution and traffic impacts of our purchases. We should consider the following actions, when possible, to reduce the environmental impact of our online purchases:

1. Allow longer time windows for delivery whenever possible, even if we o not save out-of-pocket expenses for it.
2. Group orders together as much as possible by pooling orders into a single delivery and do not impose additional constraints on the delivery, such as specific days and times.
3. Minimize returns and consider buying clothing, shoes, and electronics in-person, as these have high rates of return from online shopping (clothing/shoes 56%, electronics 42%).
4. Avoid driving to the store to decide on—but not purchase—an item, and then ordering it online to save money, thereby increasing the miles traveled for one purchase.
5. For recurring purchases, take advantage of subscriptions, which can save money and allow the vendor to optimize planning and delivery.
6. Select, when possible, an alternative delivery location (e.g., pickup facility, lockers) at a place that you are already going to travel to, preferably by walking or biking.

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