The environmental impact of online shopping: is it time to look at delivery?

06 August 2019
Hub Box

Green Delivery: Are shoppers influenced by the environmental impact of shopping online when they purchase?

Recently, HubBox co-hosted Ampersand’s second Ecommerce Tech Meetup in Manchester, along with PayPal and Styla. As part of a series of presentations and a panel, we chose to discuss how different technologies can be employed to mitigate the impact that online shopping can have on the environment.

Sustainability and the ethical supply chain are becoming increasingly important points of discussion in the e-commerce industry, and as a result, brands and retailers are having to carefully consider how and whether their business practices are contributing to a ‘greener’ retail industry. When fast-fashion behemoths such as Boohoo, Missguided and Pretty Little Thing are addressing these issues in their policies, it’s clear that questions of environmental impact and sustainability are no longer fringe concerns, but firmly part of the mainstream conversation in ecommerce.

In a time of rapidly shifting consumer attitudes, how important are these considerations to customers when it comes down to actually making a purchase? Below, we cover off some of the key points of discussion at the Ecommerce Tech Meetup in Manchester.

Delivery will be the next big issue in the sustainability conversation

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the ways in which our clothing consumption, and the fast-fashion cycle in particular is negatively impacting the environment. The practice of viewing clothes as a disposable product is demonstrably unsustainable, with over 350,000 tonnes of clothes going to landfill every year in the UK according to TRAID.

People are also becoming better at understanding how the current scale of industrial clothing production is depleting natural resources. Some brands are even leaning in to this increased demand for transparency, with retailers such as Asket and Reformation highlighting the provenance of the clothing fibres and how much C02 and water is required to produce a specific item of clothing. Overall when it comes to clothing production, a whopping 93 billion cubic metres of water are used and an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions emitted every year – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. 

Shopping events such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday and most recently Prime Day have all generated media coverage on the environmental and human impact of our predilection for super-speedy delivery times. With initiatives such as CleanAirDay gaining ground, retailers may face increased pressure from their customers to demonstrate that this is an issue they’re taking seriously and are working to address.

Reducing the environmental impact of delivery can be tricky for retailers

Fulfillment and delivery in ecommerce is largely handled by courier companies, the vast majority of which started life as B2B shipping services. In its modern day ubiquitousness, it’s easy to forget that the ecommerce industry is barely 20 years old, and that many of these companies were not designed to fulfil private commercial deliveries with the speed and regularity which consumers now expect when shopping online. Whilst couriers have kept pace, there has been a lack of real innovation to address the increased environmental impact of home delivery.

Nevertheless, there are signs that couriers are making changes to offer more convenient and environmentally-friendly delivery options, including UPS’ carbon-neutral shipping option or a number of delivery companies rolling out electric and hybrid delivery vehicles. It remains difficult for retailers to exert control over this part of the delivery journey, as in most countries commercial delivery is dominated by a handful of large couriers and networks, making it harder for retailers to leverage their influence – particularly as B2C deliveries still make up a relatively small percentage of volume, compared to B2B deliveries.

And it’s not that easy to change consumer habits

Whilst most of us will have good intentions when shopping online, 75% of shoppers say that they still automatically choose ‘home delivery’ when it comes to checkout. When home delivery works, it can be the simplest way of receiving items purchased online, however, when it doesn’t it not only creates a logistical headache for customers who have to figure out how to collect their items, but also has a negative impact on the environment. The ONS found that almost 60% of all households in the UK are working households (indicating that all adults are in full-time employment), which means that a large proportion of home deliveries that take place during the working week will be made to empty houses.

However, we are all creatures of habit, and often it takes a specific negative experience, such as not being able to collect a parcel from the Post Office or having to make a trip to a faraway depot, to prompt a change in ingrained behaviours. As Gen-Z come of age and become increasingly active participants in the market, it’s likely their concern for the environment will encourage the development and uptake of more thoughtful delivery options. Even today, 75% of consumers say they would wait for their delivery if it reduced the environmental impact of their shopping.

Things will only get greener from here

Whilst it’s likely that it will take legislation and financial incentives to get the retail industry to shift their focus to greener and more sustainable delivery options, we’re already seeing major retailers improve the breadth and quality of their green delivery options. Options such as local Click & Collect, carbon offsetting or offering reduced packaging options are all positive steps that signal the increased consumer awareness around sustainability.

Shoppers are beginning to understand that there is no such thing as ‘free delivery’, and a world where four different courier companies, with five different vans deliver a single parcel to five homes on the same street will not be sustainable in the long run. As customers understand that they may need to sacrifice immediacy, but not convenience in order to live more sustainably, we should hopefully see a more rapid shift in consumer behaviour around delivery.