E-Commerce: Young, Hip, Sustainable? Maybe

Graphic: Pablo

There has been another bout of back-patting in the e-commerce world about how sustainable we all are recently. The general consensus is that e-commerce is good for the environment for the following obvious reasons:

Less paper

So, paper… Has anyone seen the amount of paper which goes with ordering online a lot? Most places still send you a paper receipt, then there are the giant cardboard boxes filled with bubble wrap containing one tiny USB stick, not the mention paper catalogues and advertising materials which get checked in too. While some studies call this a >>footnote<< it is a factor which should not be ignored completely.

Resale platforms are the new recycling

Easy reselling is a wonder wonderful thing the internet has made easier to do. We used to call this op-shopping and it used to help the homeless.

Direct shipping means less transport pollution

The idea behind this is that delivery saves transportation on both ends: Shipping direct from the ware house reduces having to ship to a retailer first. Ordering online shops people driving around in their cars to shop. Statistics do support the claim that e-commerce results in about 30% lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions in 2011.

However, it has to be said, that the most important factor in this 30% figure is customer transport. Not only is this difficult to measure with any accuracy, but this study also assumed a US American shopping culture which involves driving to outlets in the suburbs in single cars. It does not take into account a central mall or shopping district reached by public transport scenario which is the norm in Germany for instance.

More recent research from the IEA 2014 shows that the energy demands of information and communication technology (ICT) account for around 8% percent of overall demand and that this will increase exponentially. While Europe’s energy needs will have increased by 15.5% in 2020, ICT energy use will increase by 84.3%. The devices we use to stay connected use power – all the time. Amazon’s new wind farm is a step in the right direction, but there is more to it than just power consumption. 98% of materials used in the production of ICT result in waste, reclying is costly and reuse is rare.

Better access to information helps customers make the ‘green choice’

Inspired by great design on the internet, I recently thought about adopting a plastic free lifestyle – starting by throwing out all my plastic kitchen stuff…which I could have used for the next 20 years…and buying pretty glass stuff instead. The logic was a little flawed. The internet does give us access to useful information, but it also makes us used to getting anything we want any time we want it. The choices we make are often less than logical because we are human.

Photo: Robert

Dematerialisation: The Crux of the Matter

There are great things happening in e-commerce. Because it is still the industry of younger people who grew up with environmental education, sustainability is part of company culture. Perhaps the most important thing e-commerce has given us, is the power to make environmentally friendly purchasing decisions – whether that be buying second hand, organically or fair trade. But it is not the technology that is sustainable (or not), but it’s use. E-Commerce makes buying easier. It exists to sell more stuff and it does that very well! The problem is, that this is the driving force behind our sustainability problems.

» >>As prices fall, demand and consumption will rise. This is elementary economics. And with accelerating consumption of natural resources, our sustainability just spiral downward that much faster<< – Jih Chang Yang, Industrial Technology Research Institute «

If industry growth is larger than dematerialisation that industry is not environmentally friendly. If e-commerce dematerialisation cannot match its incredible growth sorry guys – it simply isn’t sustainable.

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