Amazon Prime exploits hidden environmental costs

In the face of frequent exhaustion and financial debt, college students understandably tend to choose the simplest and cheapest option when it comes to package delivery. No one wants to pay extra shipping that costs just as much as the item they are buying, nor does anyone want to go out shopping after a four-hour lab.

Amazon helps resolve those problems by offering Amazon Prime Student, a service that provides all of the Amazon Prime membership benefits without paying $99 a year. Many college students (myself included), therefore, love Amazon Prime Student, especially the accompanying six-month free trial. Love is blind, however and this love, in particular, is blind to the environmental costs that come with Amazon Prime.

In theory, shopping through an internet retailer such as Amazon may seem more environmentally friendly than shopping at a traditional brick-and-mortar store. In reality, regardless of from where someone purchases their items, a truck will have to deliver them, either to the buyer’s home or to the store itself. Having goods delivered directly to your address should reduce environmental costs, since customers no longer need to drive their car to the store.

Sustainability Representative at Amazon Melanie Janin stated in an email to online magazine Grist, “Our research shows that delivering a typical order to an Amazon customer is more environmentally friendly than that customer driving to a store.”

However, the same logic doesn’t apply when it comes to Prime shipping, as such “rush” shipping plays a significant factor in Amazon’s plan to push out traditional retailers (Grist, “On Amazon’s Prime Day, the environment gets a raw deal,” 07.17.2018).

As consumers, we have started to opt for speed over everything else, including professionalism and the ability to track products. A survey conducted by courier Dropoff for Shoptalk, the largest annual e-commerce and retail conference in the world, found that 99 percent of U.S. consumers said that they value “fast delivery” when making online purchases, compared to only 75 percent who indicated professionalism and 99 percent who mentioned real-time tracking (Dropoff, “Survey Findings Reveal Consumers Want Even Faster Delivery, and They’re Willing to Pay for it,” 03.20.2018).

If we have the option for something to be delivered in two days rather than a week— especially if the delivery comes free—it only makes sense that we would choose the cheaper and faster option. However, this desire for instant gratification means that companies can no longer take the steps that they normally could to reduce environmental costs and improve distribution.

Miguel Jaller from the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis said, “Before, companies were able to consolidate, to optimize their distribution. Now, because some of them are offering really fast and rushed deliveries, that disintegrates the consolidation. Every individual is buying more and wanting those goods to be at their home really fast. That creates more vehicles, more traffic, and potentially more emissions” (Vox, “The environmental cost of free 2-day shipping,” 11.17.2017).

Not only that, but two-day Prime shipping doesn’t even promise Amazon’s fastest delivery speed. Amazon has started promoting Prime Now, a free delivery service for all Prime members that offers two-hour delivery time on local dispatches like groceries and home essentials (Business Insider, “Amazon is giving anyone who hasn’t tried its 2-hour delivery service, Prime Now, $20 off their first 2 orders – here’s how to get the deal,” 07.14.2018). As a result, Amazon has placed more pollutant-producing vehicles on the road, taking consumers further away from the goal of reducing our environmental footprint.

“If you look at passenger vehicles, they’re pretty darn clean at this point,” stated Director of the Center for Environmental Research and Technology at University of California Riverside Matt Barth. He mentions that “Trucks are a different animal,” as the majority of them still run on diesel, unlike passenger vehicles which are moving towards gasoline and electric (Vox, “The environmental cost of free 2-day shipping,” 11.17.2017).

However, we can reduce the negative environmental impact that comes from the carbon emissions produced by trucks by addressing the “last mile” problem, a term that refers to the final distance from a distribution center to a package’s destination. One company, Matternet, has created drones for the purpose of delivering lightweight packages.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Matternet founder Andreas Raptopoulos stated, “You have a lightweight package going to a single destination. You cannot aggregate packages. It’s still way too complicated and expensive. It’s very energy inefficient. UAVs or drones deal with the problem of doing this very efficiently with extremely low cost and high reliability. It’s the best answer to the problem” (The Atlantic, “A Drone-Delivery Expert Answers the Big Questions About Amazon’s Plans,” 12.02.2013).

A study by The Smithsonian suggests that small drones do indeed have a smaller negative impact on the environment than any truck or van, regardless of the power source—diesel, gasoline, natural gas or electricity (Smithsonian, “Is Drone Delivery Good for the Environment,” 02.14.2018). Aside from employing drones, companies can reduce their carbon emission from deliveries by switching to electric vehicles or, perhaps in the future, self-driving trucks that release drones as they drive.

Companies can easily improve the environmental issues associated with online shopping by switching to the aforementioned techniques. However, the environmental responsibilities do not solely lie with companies. We as consumers contribute to the issue through the way we shop. Instead of placing individual orders, we should plan to buy multiple items at once so that companies can consolidate orders. In addition, we should avoid expedited shipping when we are able to wait a few extra days.

Finally, we need to consume less. Just because we have the ability to buy something doesn’t mean that we should. We can’t expect companies to act in a way that goes against their incentive to make profit, but we do have the ability to change the market. The problems stem from the delivery to our doorsteps, so perhaps the solutions should come from there, too.

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