Environmental Impact of Online Retail
With the explosion of online retail, consumers are choosing click and mortar retail over traditional brick and mortar stores. Online retail presents a unique opportunity to have a positive impact on the environment and prevent climate change. Online consumer’s behaviors are more efficient and sustainable than a traditional consumer. Maintaining a website as opposed to a physical store is one obvious way to decrease carbon footprint. However, less evident but still very dramatic benefits in sustainability comes from logistics of delivery.
On average, the carbon footprint of a “Cybernaut”, defined as a shopper who performs all of the buying process—searches, purchases, and returns—online, is almost half of that of a “Traditional Shopper”, a shopper who shops only in physical stores . This is due to the fact that parcel carriers optimize the delivery process for many customers while a traditional shopper produces a lot of emissions from the customer transporting back and forth from the stores, and often making multiple trips. Even with higher return rates, online shopping has a lower carbon footprint than traditional shopping due to massive savings caused by saving on transportation.
Carbon emission savings in grocery delivery illustrate this effect even more clearly. Trucks optimized for delivery to be filled to capacity and on routes optimized for delivery will deliver to a clustered network of consumers, can cut carbon emissions by half, compared to individual consumers purchasing groceries at the store .
Furthermore, because fuel cost is often the most significant cost, logistics providers are placed in a unique position of being incentivized to be sustainable. Becoming fuel efficient and saving on operating costs will not only cut greenhouse gas emissions but also improve their bottom line. Which begs the question: how are delivery service providers dealing with sustainability?
USPS and Climate Change
As the federal agency providing delivery services to any address in the entire U.S., USPS is one of the most important delivery service providers in the U.S .
USPS has reported their carbon emission every year since 2008. USPS also created a committee called Climate Change Adaptation Working Group (CCAWG) to address specific issues related to climate adaptation planning. CCAWG meets monthly and sets roadmaps and milestones to make USPS more sustainable and adaptable to climate change .
USPS’ policies are summarized as:
- Climate Change Integration and Collaboration
- Maintain awareness of climate change and monitor implementation of climate planning activities.
- Protect employees from climate related risks such as safety while delivering in extreme weather
- Network and Fleet
- Consider climate change and disaster management when deciding to change network operations facilities
- Facilities and Infrastructure
- Evaluate climate risk for plans related to equipment and real estate of facilities
While USPS Climate Change Adaption Plan addresses how to minimize the operational hindrance climate change might have, their plan is limited to risk mitigation. They do not address how to improve their operations by making it more sustainable. USPS pales in comparison to other delivery service providers that are leveraging sustainability to improve their operations.
DHL perhaps due to the fact that it is a much bigger and global delivery service provider, has made a more tangible action plan in addressing Climate Change. In 2007 DHL committed to reducing their carbon footprint by 30% by 2020. Since then they have adopted many sustainable practices to become more environmental and more operationally efficient.
Some examples of their practices include :
- Deploying more fuel efficient vehicle such as electric or hybrid vehicles, aerodynamically engineered trucks
- Replacing old aircraft carriers with newer models and optimizing cargo space to be more fuel efficient
- Using technology to calculate the best delivery routes to increase efficiency
- Providing “Climate Neutral” delivery methods by offsetting with voluntary emissions trading schemes
UPS, one of DHL’s competitors, also published their Climate Change Statement, a commitment on how to select climate change policies. Their resolutions are very similar to DHL’s plans and revolve around network and mode optimization (logistics optimization), investing in fuel-efficient or alternative fuel technologies, and reporting greenhouse gas data in compliance to governing bodies .
Room for Improvements for USPS
As USPS is neither international nor private, imposing DHL and UPS’ standard of commitment to Climate Change on USPS would be unfair. However, given the massive potential for carbon emission decreases in the delivery industry as online retail continues to grow, USPS should further implement ways to become more fuel efficient in their vehicles and optimize their routes.
 Dimitri Weideli, “Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping,” http://ctl.mit.edu/sites/ctl.mit.edu/files/library/public/Dimitri-Weideli-Environmental-Analysis-of-US-Online-Shopping_0.pdf
 Michelle Ma, “Grocery Delivery Is Greener Than Driving To The Store,” http://www.washington.edu/news/2013/04/29/grocery-delivery-service-is-greener-than-driving-to-the-store/
 “Climate Change Adaptation Plan,” United States Postal Service, accessed November 3, 2016, http://about.usps.com/who-we-are/leadership/about-usps.htm
 “About the United States Postal Service”, United States Postal Service, accessed November 3, 2016, https://about.usps.com/what-we-are-doing/green/pdf/CCAP_FINAL_2014.pdf
 “DHL Go Green Solutions,” DHL, accessed November 3, 2016, http://www.dhl-usa.com/en/about_us/green_solutions.html
 “UPS Environmental Policy Statement and Environmental Guidance Statements”, UPS Press Room, accessed November 3, 2016, https://pressroom.ups.com/pressroom/ContentDetailsViewer.page?ConceptType=FactSheets&id=1426321598574-579
Exhibit 1. Dimitri Weideli, “Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping,” p 5. http://ctl.mit.edu/sites/ctl.mit.edu/files/library/public/Dimitri-Weideli-Environmental-Analysis-of-US-Online-Shopping_0.pdf
Exhibit 2. Michelle Ma, “Grocery Delivery Is Greener Than Driving To The Store,” p 1. http://www.washington.edu/news/2013/04/29/grocery-delivery-service-is-greener-than-driving-to-the-store/
Exhibit 3. “UPS Environmental Policy Statement and Environmental Guidance Statements”, UPS Press Room, accessed November 3, 2016, https://pressroom.ups.com/pressroom/ContentDetailsViewer.page?ConceptType=FactSheets&id=1426321598574-579
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