The Environmental Impact of E-Commerce Markets During the Holiday Season

Abigail Marshall

Senior Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2020

As the holiday season fast approaches, many Americans are busy planning celebrations with friends and family and shopping for the perfect gift for their loved ones. We often stress about holiday parties and travel arrangements. For many of us, however, our impact on the environment during this time is not of great importance. Unfortunately, during this time, both household and commercial waste increases at often due to online shipments. The convenience of internet shopping, especially around the holidays, packs an environmental punch. As consumers, we must be cognizant of this impact when we decide to purchase online. Not only must we be aware of our own consumption, we must also consider the awareness and efforts of e-commerce platforms to address environmental concerns during this busy time.

The problem

According to a recent article published by the New York Post, Amazon has roughly 100 million “Prime Members.” Amazon Prime members receive free one-day shipping on nearly 10 million products. Amazon recently rolled out a holiday season promotion, expanding same-day delivery for Prime members during the busy shopping season. While Amazon Prime members benefit from the convenience of a one-day door to door service, it is often to the detriment of the environment. The U.S. Department of Commerce recently reported that e-commerce purchases hit $513.6 billion in 2018. As the e-commerce markets experienced a boom, so did the corrugated-box industry, says a Chicago Sun-Times consumer reporter. In the same year, the box industry sold $112 billion, or about 170 million tons of corrugated-boxes. Although correlation does not equal causation, there is no denying the similar spike in demand regarding the two industries.

Going green this holiday season

Regardless of belief, climate-change and the environment have been put on display this past year. As online purchases increase each year, some think consumers are now more cognizant of sustainability during the holiday season. Recent data released by PwC revealed that for about 75% of consumers, they will consider sustainability during the holidays. Although we will not see the results of this alleged mindset until after the holiday season, agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hope shoppers are mindful. The CDC revealed that Americans, on average, throw away about 25% more trash between the Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve season.

What consumers can do?

As consumers, we play a direct role in the environmental impact of the holiday season. The New York Post reveals ways we can cut our carbon footprint on Amazon deliveries. One simple solution proposed is to group items into one shipment. Amazon Prime members can choose an option allowing them to get all of their deliveries on the same day. This will allow Amazon employees to pool and consolidate the member’s order and reduce the number of cardboard boxes shipped for multiple items. Amazon Prime members are also incentivized with future rewards by choosing “no-rush” shipping. Of course, “no-rush” shipping will not decrease the number of products being shipped, but it may lead to the grouping of multiple items into one single box, which is a start.

A public plea

Although consumers play a role in the resulting environmental impact of their shopping habits, large online retailers are equally responsible for combatting the effects. This year, in anticipation of the holiday season, the fashion industry is pleading with consumers and givers alike, to be cognizant of the environment when giving. In a statement released on November 18, 2019, a group of fashion editors pleaded with PR agencies and luxury brands to refrain from using excessive “unboxing” materials. Gifting and “unboxing” is the practice of sending promotional gifts and products to celebrities with extravagant, and often excessive decorative shipping materials. The editors took a brave stance save the planet stating, “thoughtful packaging, as well as advance notice, choice of product or the option to respectfully opt out of gifting would be appreciated as we set the intention to shift industry norms.” This is the first holiday season where we have seen public pleas from these sectors. The new standard among preventable waste is very important, especially for these industries and some of its key players.

What more can be done?

In recent years, the titan of e-commerce, Amazon, has pledged its commitment to lessen its carbon footprint. In 2019, Amazon announced its Shipment Zero goal. Pursuant to this goal, Amazon pledges to have 50 percent of all deliveries reach net zero carbon emissions by the year 2030. Net zero carbon emissions means Amazon would remove or reduce the same amount of greenhouse gas it is thought to produce. For Amazon and other e-commerce companies, this is a realistic goal. To do so, This lack of transparency leads some consumers and investors to question whether Amazon’s lack of disclosure means the company’s carbon omissions are more severe than many believe.

Regardless of current and future efforts to address the climate crisis, some consumers seem to be confronting the crisis head on. This holiday season, it is important to understand not only which companies contribute to the environmental crisis, but also what we are doing as consumers to improve our earth’s troubled state.