Is the environment Amazon’s Achilles heel or opportunity?

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images
Nov 15, 2019
Mark Ryski

Whether or not you were moved by Greta Thunberg’s riveting speech at the United Nations or startled by the recent emergency declaration signed by 11,000 experts that we need immediate action to avoid a climate catastrophe, it’s undeniable that humanity is creating waste and pollution at unprecedented levels.

Online shopping is a major and accelerating contributor, not only in packaging, but also in the tons of carbon pumped out by the cars, trucks and airplanes that deliver them.

While the environmental impact of online shopping is hardly an Amazon-only issue, they are an undisputed leader and they set the standard others follow.

Regardless of your views on climate change, what is undeniable is that shipping multiple low-value items in different packages to the same address creates more waste. And when you consider the impact of returns, which some estimates put as high as 40 percent for apparel, the environmental impact is considerably compounded.

Delivery speed is also a contributing factor. The faster the delivery, the less opportunity to consolidate items into a single shipment. Free next-day delivery may be highly desirable to shoppers, but it’s bad for the environment.

Amazon is not oblivious to the environmental impact it’s having and seems to be taking steps to minimize it, such as joining the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and reducing packaging size, but some of these efforts are creating new problems. For example, Amazon’s new, lightweight plastic mailer for smaller items enables them to pack more items on every truck, however, the mailers are not recyclable via curbside recycling bins. They aren’t easily recyclable in any event because of the need to first remove the paper mailing label affixed to the outside.

Of course, consumers also need to take some responsibility for their actions since they’re the ones doing the buying. But even the environmentally woke Millennials are big online shoppers, making 54 percent of their purchases online, according to a recent study by research firm Invesp.

So, are consumers just too enamored of convenient, free, next-day shipping offers to care about the environmental impact?

Researchers at MIT’s Sustainable Logistics Initiative wanted to find out so they conducted an experiment to see if consumers would be willing to wait longer for their delivery, first by offering a small financial incentive for every day of delay in shipping – 70% were responsive to the incentive. 

Researchers then asked those who weren’t responsive to monetary perks: “What if I told you that for every day you’re willing to wait, I could save 200 trees in equivalent energy of CO2 emissions?” Sixty percent within the group changed their minds when presented with the environmental information.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Would Amazon benefit from doing more to minimize the environmental impact they profit from? If Amazon included an “eco-friendly” shipping option, informing shoppers of the reduced environmental impact of delayed shipping or combining items, would it make a difference? How likely is it that others would follow Amazon’s lead if it took such a step?

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"The whole online industry needs to develop environmentally friendly solutions. "
"I do believe that shoppers would select an eco-friendly option if it were offered – this is a fantastic idea."
"Making consumers aware of the actual, measurable impact their purchases have would be a noble undertaking for a brand, especially if they give customers a way to reduce that."

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25 Comments on "Is the environment Amazon’s Achilles heel or opportunity?"


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Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

The answer is simply yes — everyone must do more to minimize our impact on the environment. However, I do not believe that mega-corporations like Amazon will take significant action until their customers demand it. And unfortunately, as Mark points out in his article, most people tend to put convenience over the environment when placing online orders. Perhaps if the government would place environmental impact labeling requirements on all deliveries, as we do with nutritional data on food labels, people would pay more attention and meaningful change would come faster.

Chris Buecker
BrainTrust

Yes, definitely, the environmental conscience among consumers will only increase going forward. The whole online industry needs to develop environmentally friendly solutions. The current hype of package deliveries cannot go on like this. And it will not go on. A credible and trusted “green” online policy will be needed.

Casey Golden
BrainTrust
23 days 40 minutes ago

Agree. I recently purchased coffee table, end table, lamp, and 2 night stands. I filled up 5 giant side garbage bags for recycling of cardboard and plastic. I felt immense guilt for contributing to such waste. There must be a better way, in fact, perhaps the solution is in packing materials.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

A friend on Facebook just proudly posted a pile of Amazon boxes that almost reached the ceiling. She’s happy her Christmas shopping is finished; all I could see were those empty shipping boxes.

I think about those boxes each time I am about to hit “add to cart” on Amazon. Sure, I love the convenience of overnight delivery but I can just as easily buy what I need ASAP from a nearby retailer.

This is a growing problem that Amazon needs to solve, and it needs to keep consumers apprised of what it is doing – and what we can do – to care for the environment. I’m with the 60 percent of survey respondents who said they are willing to wait longer for delivery if it saves 200 trees. I bet more people would do that too if they knew it was an option.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

Convenience seems to top everything.

I am excited by the study results from MIT and believe once people understand the societal impact of their shipping and shopping decisions they will change their behavior. The waste in shipping is simply unsustainable. Plastic bubble wrap when newspaper would suffice, it’s just crazy.

Yesterday I received three separate shipments with three items each. A traditional retailer CONSOLIDATES the shipments, why can’t Amazon take a cue from old school retail and order many but ship once?

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Amazon will benefit very little from changing their practices to improve the environment. I certainly don’t know all that they’ve done to date environmentally, but they are clearly greenwashers. That said, I don’t care about Amazon benefiting, I care about the environment. Most people will say the same and still order one item at a time because they can have it the next day or sometimes the same day. It’s a habit that will not change substantially because for most humans, the delight of getting a shiny new thing for immediate gratification outweighs far off benefits of controlling their urges for the greater good.

Just the other day I thought of how Bezos wants to move humans into space and manufacture items there in a very distant future stating “…Earth can be zoned residential.” Yet HIS COMPANY is enhancing environmental problems on multiple fronts in the present. He already has too much money, so without question he has the opportunity to “be the change” and make a difference now, instead he has chosen profits and hypocrisy.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Like most environmental things this is incredibly complex. Is the pollution generated by delivering to individual homes greater than the pollution that would be caused by each of those householders driving to stores to get their goods? Is the packaging used for delivery worse than the resources used to sustain a physical store? I don’t know the answer to these things.

What I do know is there is a gap between what people say and what people do. People claim they want to be more sustainable, but many of those same people demand faster, no-cost shipping and low-priced goods.

The one thing you can say about Greta Thunberg is that her actions match her words; she puts her beliefs into practice. I am not sure that holds for most consumers.

Stephen Rector
BrainTrust

Yes, Amazon would benefit and being such a huge part of the industry, others would follow. The question is rather, will they do it and at what cost to their bottom line? I think at this point the answer is no, until the customers revolt – which I don’t see happening in the near future.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust
I have said it before, and I am repeating it, I am not at all convinced that the consumer is all about how fast they can get their package. There are facts in this article that support that. If consumers were in such a rush to get their item, I believe the 70 percent number provided by MIT researchers would be less. Most of us are busy. Today we have become swamped. How many times has the package of what we ordered arrived only to sit for a couple of days before you have a chance to open it? Perhaps you’re on a business trip or working 14-hour days preparing for a conference. I think retailers have it all wrong, and it costs them dearly. They were better off when they provided the customer with a faster delivery when needed for a premium. The customer, if they needed the item ASAP, was happy to pay for it, and the rest of the customers didn’t mind waiting a couple of days for their package while the… Read more »
Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

Amazon lead the way to faster delivery and free shipping so it created the dilemma it now faces. The survey indicated people would be willing to wait longer for the purchase if they were compensated for the delay. Could it also ask customers if they would be willing to wait longer because it was better for the environment? Certainly.

Would other retailers follow or take advantage by emphasizing their faster delivery? That is the real question. In this very competitive marketplace they might if Amazon reported higher sales. If not, I am doubtful.

Bethany Allee
BrainTrust

Given there is a positive consumer response, others would definitely follow Amazon’s lead. I do believe that shoppers would select an eco-friendly option if it were offered – this is a fantastic idea.

Bethany Allee
BrainTrust

Also, in theory there is currently an “eco-friendlier” option. Amazon does ask if they can hold your delivery to minimize packing materials.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Correct. How many shoppers are aware, how much effort does Amazon put into their “eco-friendlier” awareness and explaining the environmental benefit, and most importantly, how many choose it? I’ll venture it’s all minimal.

Casey Golden
BrainTrust
23 days 38 minutes ago

They could label it and move it to the top line for options to make it easier for consumers to select.

Evan Snively
BrainTrust

Most consumers know that their purchasing habits could be altered to make them more environmentally friendly, but there is so much inertia with the norm that it’s very difficult to translate that into action (as shown by the “environmentally woke Millennial” stat above — which made me chuckle and I really want to know how that segment was identified.)

Making consumers aware of the actual, measurable impact their purchases have would be a noble undertaking for a brand, especially if they give customers a way to reduce that impact. (I like the MIT example, though wish conversion for waiting one day was more than 60 percent.) They just need to be careful not to frame a slightly more efficient path as a net positive for the environment.

Michael Terpkosh
BrainTrust

As a dedicated recycling household, my family would welcome the opportunity to have eco-friendly shipping options including the consolidation of items into one package. I believe most consumers would appreciate this service option and would be willing to accept a slight delay in shipping to help the environment. If Amazon moved in this direction, they could set an industry standard others would follow.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

Amazon must put its deep pockets to work to solve this problem. If it does not, we, the shoppers, must take action and stop using Amazon. If we do not, then all the talk about saving our planet for our children and grandchildren is just plain B.S. Do we really want to put convenience over our health and the health of the planet?

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

I am a dedicated Amazoner and hate the amount of cardboard that I put into my recyling bin every week. Not to mention the plastic envelopes, air filled plastic bubbles, etc. The reverse logistics of reusable delivery containers, or even just taking back the cardboard boxes and reusing them can’t be that hard to solve. I do think twice before pressing buy about how much waste and shipping “air” will be involved. I”d buy more if Amazon took back the packaging.

Kathleen Fischer
Guest

If Amazon – or any retailer – communicates to the customer the opportunities for a reduced environmental impact when they shop or choose their delivery options, many consumers will make the “right choice.” Most people aren’t consciously trying to cause more waste or create more carbon emissions, but we, as consumers, have become accustomed to instant gratification – so we want what we want, when we want it.

As consumers become more aware of the critical need to be environmentally friendly, they will react positively when asked to make a choice to wait another day or two for an item. However, thinking about the effect your shopping decisions make on the environment requires a major shift in overall shopping and fulfillment expectations from a “me first” to an “earth first” perspective. As Amazon tends to be seen as a disruptor in the industry, if they take this on as an initiative, this may help to shift the industry as a whole.

Michael Blackburn
Guest
23 days 11 hours ago

I used to think yes, but I’m not so sure despite the survey results. You have your conscious consumer, and your convenience consumer.

On the other hand, Bezos could spin this and say with more sales going online, and more stores closing, all those closed outlets should be converted to green space with planted trees — a new “Amazon.”

Paco Underhill
BrainTrust

We cannot continue to deliver goods in the way we have. Drones, cardboard packaging, paper, plastic much less gas and labor. Outside my NYC office window, I can watch the analog reality of Amazon as trucks and boxes are sorted on the sidewalk — next to the trash containers filled with the above.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

Amazon already does two things to help minimize packaging — offering a checkbox to minimize the number of packages shipped per order, and offering to hold your packages for delivery on a set day of the week of your choosing. I don’t see Amazon promoting these options very much and I wonder how many customers even know they are an option. Then there’s the question of how many consumers if shown these options, say they would choose them. I bet the answer to that is a high percentage. So why don’t we see these options promoted by Amazon more often?

Casey Golden
BrainTrust
23 days 45 minutes ago

Amazon offers an Amazon Day as well as a consolidated box for the entire order. Perhaps adding text mentioning it’s an eco-friendly option and tracking the impact a shopper is making by choosing that option would be more beneficial to their shipping/material costs and be more adventitious for consumers to select.

The environment is important and it is every company’s responsibility to minimize their impact. Younger consumers prefer it, but the Alpha Generation is already demanding it. It’s best for companies to move now, regardless if Amazon is doing it. On the flip side, Amazon executing such an initiative would set a new standard and others would have to fall in line.

Casey Golden
BrainTrust
23 days 34 minutes ago

Since traditional retailers ship slower and often consolidate more than Amazon, they could just add the commentary of eco-friendly to their current shipping method at checkout at no cost.

Bill Hanifin
BrainTrust

The package waste is obvious if you’re a regular Amazon shopper. But when Amazon offers 1 day shipping, we all jump on the opportunity. It’s tough to have it all, i.e. immediacy in getting what we want while being responsible stewards of the planet.

I’m encouraged that consumers responded the MIT’s Sustainable Logistics Initiative when the benefit was framed in terms of environmental impact.

When will a solution for this problem turn up on Shark Tank? If not that channel, surely someone will come up with a solution? If I were Amazon, I’d like that solution to come from within its own walls.

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Braintrust
"The whole online industry needs to develop environmentally friendly solutions. "
"I do believe that shoppers would select an eco-friendly option if it were offered – this is a fantastic idea."
"Making consumers aware of the actual, measurable impact their purchases have would be a noble undertaking for a brand, especially if they give customers a way to reduce that."

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