The massive volume of packaging materials and shipping waste created by online shopping takes a toll on our environment. As arguably the world's most visible and successful e-tailer, U.S.-based Amazon sits at the center of the controversy.
Environmental and consumer activists have taken on the behemoth company, and even its own employees have publicly -- and in defiance of their executives -- spoken out against the practices that they said contribute to Amazon's environmental impact.
The advocacy group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice has repeatedly raised alarms about the company, starting in 2019 and continuing into 2020. The group has charged that Amazon is not taking strong enough action to fight climate change. Most recently, the group published statements from more than 350 concerned Amazon employees, who signed their names and job titles despite the company's prohibition on publicly commenting on internal business practices without approval.
Others have also taken aim at Amazon, targeting various environment-related issues, from the volume of packaging and traffic-related emissions the company generates to the sale of products containing environmentally dangerous products, such as mercury, that happen via its online retail platform.
In reality, Amazon's environmental impact is hard to measure, experts said.
Several experts said it's impossible to determine whether the environment is better or worse off because of Amazon. After all, consumers have had, and still have, plenty of options when it comes to their purchase power and would still buy plenty of merchandise even if Amazon hadn't come along.
"The competitive pricing may make it possible for people to buy more at Amazon versus the pricing if it was in a brick-and-mortar store, but there is no definitive answer whether e-tailing is more or less green than brick-and-mortar options," said L. Beril Toktay, professor of operations management in the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology and faculty director of its Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business.
But, Toktay said, asking whether e-tailing has a lower environmental impact than brick-and-mortar retail isn't necessarily the right question, as online shopping is here to stay thanks to the conveniences it offers on many levels.
"A better question to ask is what these e-tailers can do to be thoughtful about their environmental footprint and to develop strategies that are win-win," Toktay said.
Amazon takes action
Amazon has shot back, at its worker group and other critics, by pointing to a list of efforts it undertook to be gentler on the environment.
In a written response to TechTarget, Amazon said it is "innovating and investing to be net zero carbon by 2040 and run on 100% renewable energy by 2030."
The company further cited its purchase order of 100,000 fully electric delivery vehicles; a $100 million investment in nature-based climate solutions and reforestation projects; and sustainable packaging programs, such as the Ship in Own Container option, as examples of positive environmental efforts.
Amazon also noted that the company collaborates with manufacturers to improve packaging and cut waste, which has reduced packaging weight by 27% and eliminated more than 810,000 tons of packaging material since 2008.
"In operations alone, we have over 200 scientists, engineers, and product designers dedicated exclusively to inventing new ways to leverage our scale for the good of customers and the planet," Amazon said.
Measuring e-tail's effect on climate change
Researchers are studying how the vast volume of packaging and transportation needs born from online shopping affect the environment. It's a complex equation that needs to factor in trucking routes, packaging practices, percentages of returns made and whether consumers are made aware of lower-impact alternatives, among other things.
The World Economic Forum, in its report "The Future of the Last-Mile Ecosystem," states: "Growing demand for e-commerce delivery will result in 36% more delivery vehicles in inner cities by 2030, leading to a rise in both emissions and traffic congestion without effective intervention." The report also adds: "Interventions could reduce emissions and traffic congestion by 30%, and delivery cost by 25%, compared to the 'do-nothing' scenario."
Anne Goodchild, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington and founding director of its Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center, questions some of the conclusions of that report, saying its figures are based on many assumptions.
Goodchild, like other business leaders and researchers, said calculating emissions and other environmental impacts of Amazon, and e-tailers in general, is a complicated exercise that reveals both pros and cons of the business model.
"It's really about how we get stuff. We did that before online shopping and overwhelmingly, in the U.S., that was a single person driving to a store for a few items. It doesn't really get worse than that [for the environment], so that's not a very hard model to beat," Goodchild said. She added that the bigger the car, the farther the drive to the store and the less goods bought on each trip increases the negative impact on the environment.
"If you substitute that with delivery vehicles, delivery vehicles are overwhelmingly better," Goodchild said. "The delivery companies want to fill their trucks so they use less fuel and create less emissions in totality.
"So there's a potential for delivery to be a real asset, but there are all these 'buts,'" she said. For instance, a partially filled delivery vehicle that drives long distances between stops and makes multiple trips to the same location to deliver a single package at a time over the course of many days isn't better than consumers driving short distances to do a large shopping trip all at once.
James ThomsonPartner with Buy Box Experts
"It matters what these details are: whether you live in the suburbs or the city, how far you used to go to the store, how much you buy in a single trip. We can't just say, 'Boom, it's better to shop online,'" she added.
Consumerism contributes to impact
James Thomson, a former Amazon executive and now a partner with Buy Box Experts, a marketing agency that works with Amazon, said the company, largely through Amazon Prime and one-day shipping, has done a great job at getting customers to shop whenever they want and to expect free, fast delivery -- regardless of whether they actually need their purchases to arrive quickly.
"Consumers don't have to put a shopping list together because they can go online anytime to buy anything," Thomson said. "So while there are some parts of the environmental questions where Amazon could do better -- such as electric trucks or better routing -- they also have got to stop over-delivering [with its excess packaging] and stop getting consumers to think they need everything instantly."
Amazon is not the only retailer engaged in these practices; other retailers also offer free delivery and incentives that encourage frequent shopping regardless of actual need. Lack of transparency about how free and fast shipping can contribute to excess packaging and increased emissions encourages this consumer culture, as does the retailers' push to lower prices. "[Such expectations] create an extra cost to the environment; it's an extra cost to all of us," Thomson added.
Environmental watchdogs also want Amazon -- which sells directly to consumers but also provides a platform for third-party retailers to reach these shoppers -- to do more to get these vendors to embrace sustainable practices, and tamp down on ones that sell products containing harmful components.
"There's a huge question about accountability," said Sonya Lunder, senior toxics advisor at the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy organization.
While accountability extends across all online retailers, Amazon, as the biggest and thus the most visible of such companies, has become representative of what advocates call unsustainable practices.
Changes could yield improvements
There are some positives in the moves that Amazon and other retailers are making.
Toktay from Georgia Institute of Technology predicts that Amazon's environmental impact could improve with the company's focus on reducing its carbon footprint, offering consolidated shipping through pick-your-own delivery date and adding more information for consumers about shipping and product options.
Other encouraging trends include the move to a more electric-powered and fuel-efficient transportation fleet of traditional delivery vehicles and drones, along with more environmentally friendly packaging options and practices, and better informed consumers.
Members of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice continue to say their employer's efforts thus far are not enough. The group wants Amazon to move to be carbon neutral by 2030, end contracts that indirectly support oil and gas extraction and stop supporting politicians and lobbyists who deny climate change.