Shipping Goes Green: Unexpected sources of CO2 emissions in e-commerce


E-commerce and concerns about climate change have both steadily gained traction over the course of the past decade. Where those two topics come together is in conversations about shipping and delivery services.

You’d assume that e-commerce shopping would be better for the environment, as it lessens the amount of time consumers have to spend driving to and from commercial storefronts. With more consumers making purchases online, though, delivery drivers have to take to the roads more often. As a result, the carbon footprints of e-commerce platforms are larger than you’d assume.

Things grow even more complicated when you start to consider time spent in transit. Consumers are used to free two-day shipping from companies like Amazon, so much so that many smaller businesses have had to follow suit to remain competitive. While this is convenient, it also lends to the size of a platform’s carbon footprint. The faster your product of choice reaches your door, the larger the CO2 footprint of that exchange will be.

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With that in mind, what are some ways that online platforms can make their shipping and delivery services more sustainable?

Partner with the SmartWay Program

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established the SmartWay Program in 2004. This program is designed to collect data regarding the CO2 output of small businesses and transportation companies. As online sales have grown, SmartWay has instituted incentives for businesses that keep their transportation emissions low. If an e-commerce company thrives on competition and wants a bit of good press, they can join up with the program to have their CO2 emissions compared to their peers’ in a public forum on a weekly basis.

Reduce package sizes

Many e-commerce companies overestimate the package size they need to deliver their goods to consumers. While bigger is often better, it’s not good for the environment. Online shops interested in lessening their carbon output will want to size their shipping boxes for products more accurately.

How does this lessen a company’s carbon footprint? Purchasing smaller boxes requires the affiliated box manufacturer to use fewer fossil fuels. Mail carriers can also pack more boxes into their vehicles when the packages are smaller, eliminating unnecessary trips as they go.

Finally, consumers will be able to recycle smaller boxes more easily than they will unnecessarily large ones. These are all small benefits of a single change, but they all do a lot of work when it comes to reducing a company’s environmental impact.

Reduce packing materials

In addition to reducing the size of the package being shipped, online businesses looking to lower the CO2 shipping output can lessen their use of non-disposable packing materials. This means packing peanuts, tissue paper, and other protective materials. While no business should compromise the safety of fragile products, there are environmentally-friendly alternatives that online retailers can use to keep products safe while shipping. By forgoing unnecessary waste, these companies save money while also enabling greener consumer living.

Promote carbon-neutral shipping options

Until the automotive industry develops new, effective carbon-negative technologies, e-commerce transportation should strive to at least be carbon neutral in its output. This could mean donating a portion of shipping and handling to environmentally-oriented charities or investing in renewable energy sources.

To understand what “carbon neutral” means for a business, though, each business interested in lessening its output will need to better understand how much CO2 it generates in the first place. This may mean tracking product delivery and assessing output based on vehicles, distance, transfers, and more. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the first step to understanding how each business impacts the world outside of the consumer.

Green shipping in action

Businesses like UPS, Workhorse, Convoy, and Transfix have all recently invested in greener shipping methods. Be it through EV and hybrid technology or more sustainable versions of fuel, many companies are trying to lessen their harmful impact on the environment. In 2016, UPS added 200 hybrid electric trucks to their fleet, while also announcing the aim to shrink their vehicles to lessen their carbon footprint. Workhorse has been providing those smaller, hybrid vehicles to companies in need of shipping fleets since 2007.

Convoy, too, provides on-demand green shipping for companies that don’t want to commit to operations through the broader postal service. Among these companies is Transfix, which has made moves to create a software platform to help fleets of smaller trucks communicate with one another and with consumers.

Large companies don’t have to struggle to reduce the emissions released via shipping and delivery. All it takes is awareness to start moving in the right direction.

Author: Giles Kirkland

Giles Kirkland is an environmentally-conscious automotive industry researcher and writer. He focuses on the technological, scientific and sustainable aspects of transportation. In the world that evolves faster than ever, Giles keeps track of all current developments and shares his knowledge and experience with other green technology enthusiasts across the globe. You can find his work on Twitter, Oponeo blog and Facebook.