Is e-commerce really an essential component of decarbonizing the transportation of goods?

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With 2020 growth of +37% [1]E-commerce* appears to be the biggest winner in the COVID-19 crisis, with its back-to-back booking. With its impressive long-term synthesis and progression in our consumption patterns**, debate rages over its carbon footprint compared to the traditional pattern of physical purchasing, and various studies are leading to opposite conclusions. [1][2].

E-commerce: What is the weight of carbon?

By analyzing the emissions reported by e-commerce companies that post a carbon footprint without omitting important elements, it is important to note Manufacturing of goods purchased and use of products sold accounts for nearly all of these companies’ carbon footprint (between 85-95%), Compared to only 5-10% for transportation-related emissions (upstream freight, final freight, visitor travel) [3]. So before comparing the relative virtue of purchasing methods, let’s not forget that excess consumption first and foremost is a vector of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to induced emissions, the development of e-commerce warehouses, built on agricultural or non-artificial land, also contributes to reducing carbon sinks. If the manufacturing generated by e-commerce today accounts for less than 1% of the average annual artificial surface in France [1]Above all, the current dynamics of building and the lack of a regulatory framework for these logistic buildings are in dispute, e-commerce warehouses are not concerned with climate law aimed at limiting the creation of commercial rooftops in natural areas.

Ecommerce vs. In-Store Commerce: A Triumph to Qualify?

Despite the emergence of e-commerce in the use of digital materials, it is already considered a very carbon emitting activity. However, many actors and studies present it as an alternative that emits less carbon dioxide than conventional trade. [2]. So, e-commerce vs. in-store commerce: who’s winning in this low-carbon match? The traditional argument in favor of e-commerce is the assertion that a customer’s journey to the store by car is “replaced” by optimal delivery for multiple customers, generating fewer trips and therefore lower emissions. This statement should qualify for two main points:

  • E-commerce will replace traditional commerce: Calculating emissions avoided in e-commerce compared to in-store commerce is only relevant if one truly replaces the other. However, very few consumers stop going to the store to do their shopping thanks to e-commerce. Not only has the surface areas of commercial enterprises remained globally stable over the past 15 years despite the growth of e-commerce, but the development of e-commerce is not necessarily accompanied by a decline in mobility practices. Indeed, in some cases, the mobility of purchases by individuals remains unchanged and thus home deliveries result in a net addition to mobility. [4]. And therefore , E-commerce related emissions on these items will not replace those of traditional commerce, but will be added to them.
  • Transportation will be improved by delivery personnel in relation to the movements of people in stores: the use of “middle case” hides disparities in purchasing practices, both in stores and online. In fact, even if the car remains the reference state for going for in-store shopping, the typical share of the car varies greatly (from 24 to 88%) depending on the location (large communities, medium-sized cities, center or periphery) and type of business (superstores). market or small/medium businesses), the alternative is often low-carbon transportation such as walking, cycling or public transit (10-74%) [5]. In these latter cases, it is clear that the reference position “100% car” is no longer valid. In addition, an individual often collects purchases when going to the store, which can significantly reduce emissions associated with the process of purchasing the product in question in the store. However, aggregation of purchases is not taken into account in studies comparing e-commerce and in-store commerce, which are taken as a reference Buy one product [2]. In addition, optimization of tours is increasingly being contested, particularly due to the rate of return of products (from 10 to 30% depending on the sector), additional deliveries due to absence of the recipient (the absence rate in the first is about 15%) and new consumer trends, such as express delivery [1]. Racing on ever shorter delivery times has reduced truck load factors and increased use of faster, more carbon-intensive modes. [6] :

Greenhouse gas and nitrogen oxide emissions according to parcel delivery times | In kilograms of carbon dioxide or grams

And therefore , There are several criteria critical to the greenhouse gas balance in last mile logistics: Engine type, vehicle occupancy rate, absenteeism rate for home delivery, product return rate [1]. in this way, E-commerce hides a fairly carbon-intensive variety of practices on the part of carriers, and an equally rich diversity of reference positions, between a person traveling by car to make one purchase and another collecting their purchases by bicycle. Depending on the comparison chosen, e-commerce will sometimes be e-commerce, and sometimes physical stores, as shown in the study “Environmental Analysis of Online Shopping in the United States” (2013) [7] :

Comparison of GHG emissions between in-store commerce and e-commerce (“traditional shopper”: in-store commerce, “cybernaut” = e-commerce without express delivery, “cybernaut is impatient” = e-commerce with express delivery) | in kilograms

So there was no victory from KO for e-commerce. But is this comparison really the right fight to fight? Faced with this lack of a clear answer, and while e-commerce is now firmly embedded in our consumption patterns, isn’t the challenge adapting our uses in order to ensure as little carbon trading as possible? Regardless of the method of purchase. ?

How do you reduce your carbon footprint on e-commerce?

  1. The role of consumers:
  • Almost all emissions associated with e-commerce are due to the manufacture and use of the product. Thus, it is above all a matter of rethinking our need and not succumbing to excessive consumption.
  • Delivery type: Deliveries to relay points are preferred and low-carbon modes of transportation are preferred for package pickup (eg, based on environmental information displayed by e-commerce platforms, see below).
  • Delivery times: Keep express deliveries to a strict minimum. Do we really need that new roast in less than 24 hours?
  • Combine your purchases in one delivery.
  1. The role of actors in e-commerce:
  • Preference for low-carbon modes of transport for upstream transport: Choosing air transport over sea transport can result in an explosion in the carbon footprint of a product purchased (the emission factor for air transport is about 100 times greater than sea transport).
  • Decarbonization of the “last kilometer” *** (or even the previous segment leading to the last logistic warehouse): Motor vehicles are still largely thermal. There are multiple solutions such as the cargo bike and the development of alternative engines [8].
  • Show the carbon footprint of different types of delivery (relay point or at home, delivery time, etc.) to increase consumer awareness.

— Article by Juliette Sorret (consultant) juliette.sorret@carbone4.com

* Sale of products remotely and delivered to a relay point or at home ** Online commerce accounted for 13.4% share of retail in 2020 *** Signs that should not be interpreted literally: the terminal segment is generally longer, connecting the last logistics warehouse, It is generally located in the suburbs or on the outskirts of cities, with the end customer, and is likely to be more than one kilometer away from the warehouse… – –

Sources: [1] France strategy [2] Olivier Wyman, Coliposte Eco-Comparator, FEVAD [3] Analysis is based on annual reports of e-commerce companies, announcements from the Climate Disclosure Project (CDP) and carbon expertise [4] 6 T [5] Sirima [6] MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics [7] UCDAVIS Institute for Transportation Studies [8] Carbon 4

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