Your Amazon Addiction Could Be Helping The Environment

July 1st 2015

Thor Benson

Whenever I see someone getting their groceries delivered or shopping on Amazon instead of going to a store, I think, 'Wow, that person is lazy.' However, it might be better to start thinking, 'Wow, that person is helping the environment.'

It turns out that having groceries delivered to your house can cut carbon emissions by 20 to 75 percent, according to a 2013 study from the University of Washington.

"The way most people shop for groceries is pretty wasteful," Anne Goodchild, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Washington and a co-author of the study, told ATTN: "You take your 3,000 lbs. of metal and drive it to the store with nothing in it except you, and then you drive it home with some amount of groceries. It's not really hard to do better than that if you're trying to be efficient."

According to Goodchild, if we assume you are driving from your house specifically to go shopping, then you are making a bigger carbon footprint than if you just stayed home and ordered the items with a few clicks. A delivery truck can carry groceries for several families and pick the most efficient way to get them to the destination, instead of someone doing a trip in their car for one grocery run. That said, you have to factor in if the person lives close to the store or if they are perhaps driving an electric car.

In the 2013 study, Goodchild and her fellow researchers examined maps of residential communities in the Seattle area to figure out how far people had to drive to buy groceries and what impact that had to get their results. They also found companies that deliver food can save 80 to 90 percent in carbon emissions if they deliver to groups of customers that are close proximity during a single trip, as opposed to going to customers strictly based on when they ordered.

delivery sustainability

As for buying things such as clothing and books on a website like Amazon, there can also be a benefit to the environment. A 2009 study from the U.K. found that if people purchase less than 24 items while shopping at stores, it creates more of a carbon footprint than ordering just one item online. If someone is traveling by bus, then they would have to buy at least seven items to be as efficient as shopping online. Amazon, and companies like it, have a profit incentive to get items to homes as efficiently as possible, that way it is easy for the company to outpace the average customer who is going to seven different stores during a shopping trip. Furthermore, it is more efficient to order as many items as you can from a single online retailer, because different companies will not coordinate shipping efforts for efficiency.

All of this said, you might be walking or biking to the store. In that case, it is probably better for the environment than any other option. Walking and biking only really add the carbon footprint of your breathing to the world, which we can assume you were going to continue to do anyway.

Goodchild also recently studied drone delivery, and she was surprised with how efficient it can be. "For small deliveries... drones can provide an energy benefit," she said. Since drones are designed to be light to save battery power, they are pretty good at saving energy, and they do not have to follow city streets to get places. Assuming the drone is only traveling a short distance, perhaps a mile or two, it can be an efficient way to get items to the destination. That said, she recognizes there can be complications when it comes to delivering goods with a small flying machine. "I have an eight-year-old boy with a lacrosse stick who would have a great time knocking them out of the sky," she joked.

Goodchild thinks the government should instigate policies that encourage more deliveries to help the environment. She said in the same way we encourage car pooling by building car pool lanes, there should be incentives to get things delivered and for delivery services to decrease emissions. She said the government could provide tax breaks for customers who receive deliveries, and they could require delivery trucks to meet more rigid emissions limits. Most delivery trucks on the road run on diesel, so it would be better if they were hybrid or electric trucks. The government could also subsidize shipping fees, so people would not have to pay extra for getting things delivered.

The way someone shops online can create a delivery schedule that is less efficient than it should be, so in an ideal world, we would find a way to consolidate deliveries.

"If it was possible to have a single delivery consolidation center for a region, then have the most efficient set of delivery services go to every home, that might be best from an emissions stand point," Goodchild said.