Having the world at your fingertips was one of the promises of the Information Age. With electronic commerce (e-commerce) giving us the power to buy almost anything from anywhere with a simple swipe or click, that promise has certainly been fulfilled. Indeed, the impact of e-commerce in our lives can be seen in the way online shopping platforms, from Amazon and Shopee to Taobao and Lazada, have become household names.
And yet the convenience and speed of e-commerce can come at the expense of the environment, as transporting products over long distances can result in significant carbon emissions, exacerbating the current climate crisis.
However, the different shipping options offered by online retailers result in different levels of carbon emissions. With growing public awareness of climate change, how can online retailers help consumers make more environmentally friendly purchasing decisions?
This is the question researchers at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) attempted to answer in their study published in the Journal of the Transportation Research Council. They showed that adding information on carbon emissions on different shipping options led more than half of study participants to choose the option associated with lower emissions, even if it meant that ‘they had to wait longer to get their ordered items.
The study, which was co-authored by SUTD Associate Professor Lynette Cheah and graduate student Huang Quihong, specifically looked at cross-border e-commerce shipping options on the popular Chinese online shopping website, Taobao.
Cheah explained that the study was in part inspired by providing information on carbon emissions on aircraft flight research platforms. “Likewise, by informing consumers about the emissions associated with their purchases, we believe it can help them make more informed decisions,” she said.
In the study, the researchers calculated the carbon emissions associated with each mode of transportation in the various shipping options offered by Taobao. These options include shipping the package from China by air or sea freight, as well as delivering the package to the recipient’s address or to a parcel locker. In case of multiple orders, buyers can choose whether or not to consolidate the orders into one delivery.
To estimate the carbon emissions associated with shipping the packages, the researchers took into account the mode of transportation, distance traveled, and weight of items purchased to calculate the resulting carbon emissions in kilograms.
Based on the calculations, sea freight turned out to be the least carbon intensive option. Unsurprisingly, consolidating several orders into a single package also resulted in lower emissions. Overall, their results suggest that the less carbon intensive option can lead to an 81% reduction in emissions while causing an additional five days to wait for delivery to be completed.
“We’ve found that the slower shipping option is cheaper and less carbon intensive, which isn’t too surprising,” Cheah said. “However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that more than half of those surveyed were willing to accept slower deliveries knowing that they are less polluting.”
The startling finding comes from the researchers’ Shipping Choice Survey, which gathered a total of 188 responses from adult Singapore residents who had previously made cross-border purchases online. In the survey, respondents were presented with shipping options with varying prices and expected delivery times. The associated carbon emissions were also revealed before giving respondents the option to switch choices if they wished.
The survey results revealed that among those who chose the faster shipping option for their high-value orders, 56% switched to the slower option after being informed of the corresponding carbon emissions.
“It was encouraging, as it suggests that carbon labels like the ones explored in this study can guide more sustainable behaviors,” Cheah said. “Our results show that sharing information on emissions from different e-commerce shipping options can help promote more sustainable choices and potentially facilitate greener logistics operations.”
Their promising results suggest that adopting carbon labels in e-commerce can help reduce the industry’s impact on the climate. However, there are still challenges on this front. For example, Cheah noted that some retailers may be concerned that carbon labels will discourage sales.
“The challenge is to determine the appropriate means to progress towards the zero carbon goals,” explained Cheah. “We hope to continue to study the impact of e-commerce and home delivery on sustainability, the popularity of which will only grow in the years to come. “