Since 2005, Amazon has attracted hundreds of millions of customers to its Prime membership program by promising one thing — free and fast shipping, with products arriving within 48 hours or less.
There had been numerous caveats to Amazon’s free two-day shipping program: For orders with some small items, Prime has required customers to spend a minimum of $25 before they qualify for free shipping, and orders, in general, can take longer than two days to reach a customer.
In April, the e-commerce giant said that it was working to offer free one-day shipping to Prime customers. It has also eased off on its minimum purchasing requirement, Recode reported, encouraging customers to buy individual low-cost items that come with free one-day shipping. By slashing delivery time in half, it’s also a promise that could have a huge environmental impact.
Until recently, if customers wanted to buy $7 razors or a $4 makeup brush, Amazon required them to bundle the products with additional items to hit the $25 minimum. This allowed the company to cut back on shipping fees by effectively ensuring that customers will spend more on products than Amazon will on shipping.
With these changes, Amazon is trying to be the go-to retailer for household items that customers regularly need, in competing with the likes of Target, CVS, and Walmart, wrote Recode’s Jason Del Rey.
This move seems predicated on one of Amazon’s core principles — customer obsession. After all, more than 100 million people already pay $119 annually to receive Amazon Prime’s free and fast shipping; expediting that service and expanding purchasing options will likely keep customers hooked on Amazon’s services. But cutting delivery times — as appealing as that sounds to buyers and Amazon — will likely come at the expense of the environment.
According to Amazon, its fastest delivery options (one- or same-day shipping) ship units from local inventory storage, which results in shorter travel distances that are less carbon-intensive.
In September, CEO Jeff Bezos announced the company’s commitment to fighting climate change, with the goal of reducing carbon emissions to be carbon-neutral by 2040. He said Amazon would issue reports on its emissions regularly and set forth a timeline for the company to be run solely on renewables by 2030. (Bezos said Amazon currently gets 40 percent of its energy from renewables.)
The announcement, when factoring in Amazon’s scale and scope as the largest retailer in the world, seemed ambitious. Still, a number of Amazon employees who’ve advocated for climate justice believe more could be done on the retailer’s part.
Amazon’s Climate Pledge is a huge win for @AMZNforClimate & we’re thrilled at what workers have achieved in under a year. But we know it’s not enough. The Paris Agreement, by itself, won’t get us to a livable world. Today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we’ll be in the streets. pic.twitter.com/vTMzGKahTR
— Amazon Employees For Climate Justice (@AMZNforClimate) September 19, 2019
Amazon likes to tout that its delivery services are an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional shopping. “Our research shows that delivering a typical order to an Amazon customer is more environmentally friendly than that customer driving to a store,” an Amazon sustainability representative wrote to Grist in an email last year.
That is true to an extent. A 2013 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology determined that online shopping could create a smaller carbon footprint compared to in-person shopping. This depends on factors like customer location (cities or suburbs), choice of transportation (car or public transit), and the speed at which packages are delivered.
If online retailers chose to optimize their supply chains and packaging, their services could actually benefit the environment more than brick-and-mortar stores, the study concluded.
However, that goal becomes more difficult when speed and high demand for products are factored into the equation — an inevitable result of free one-day shipping on such a wide range of products. Delivery services can be efficient and cost-effective, but speedy delivery can create problems, Anne Goodchild, a University of Washington professor of civil and environmental engineering, previously told The Goods.
“As we move towards faster delivery, it gets harder to consolidate,” she said. “When we’re not paying some sort of personal cost for the trip, I think it’s easy to overlook how much travel we’re adding.”
Amazon outsources its delivery services to different providers, including UPS, the US Postal Service, and a number of standalone companies with contracted drivers. These contracted drivers operate vans that are smaller than freight vehicles, which means that they can carry fewer packages and have to return to the warehouse to pick up more.
It’s also impossible to ignore the human costs and manpower needed to fulfill Amazon’s shipping promises. An investigation by Buzzfeed News found that contracted drivers worked under grueling conditions to meet their delivery goals; they were forced to skip meals, drove recklessly, and urinated in bottles to deliver more packages in less time.
Even before Amazon’s one-day shipping option was introduced, people have already started to make more individual purchases for cheaper items, rather than combine them in one big order, according to Buzzfeed News. “There’s more demand created by the availability of these cheap products and cheap delivery options,” Miguel Jaller, a UC Davis professor of civil and environmental engineering, told Buzzfeed.
In an article written for Vox last November, Jaller suggested two potential solutions to reduce online shopping’s environmental impact: Retailers should invest in more zero-emission delivery vehicles, and consumers should be more aware of their shopping habits.
As part of Amazon’s climate pledge, Bezos said that the company will order 100,000 electric delivery vans from Rivian, all of which should hit the road by 2024. Amazon does also offer environmentally beneficial options for buyers: Prime customers can choose one day of the week to get all their deliveries, which would reduce packaging and consolidate shipments. Discounts and Amazon rewards are also offered to Prime participants in the no-rush shipping program.
But these incentives — even if effective — do little to offset the major human and environmental cost of speedy delivery services.
Jaller points out that e-commerce platforms aren’t going to make environmentally conscious decisions unless customers push them to: “Right now, the profit incentive is pushing retailers in the wrong direction. We can’t expect companies to act against their own interests on their own initiative. But as consumers, we can help to reshape the market.”
Whether or not it’s reasonable to place corporate responsibility at the feet of consumers, it’s clear that Amazon is doubling down on services that encourage single-use shopping.
With options like free one- or two-day shipping at their fingertips, customers are conditioned to expect quick delivery services, often ignoring the human and environmental costs that make it possible.
Old habits die hard, and it’s unlikely that the advent of one-day shipping would bring about any change from a consumer point of view.
Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter.Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.