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2020 holiday shopping season dubbed most environmentally friendly

In-store shopping more emissions-intensive, study says

(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

A stay-at-home economy helped 2020 deliver the “most environmentally friendly holiday season yet,” according to a Prologis and MIT special report released Thursday. 

Based on consumer behaviors, in-person shopping was compared to e-commerce to find differences in environmental impacts. The study said that one full standard delivery van can replace over 100 individual car trips to the store.

During the holiday season each year, companies scramble to keep up with peak demands for shipping and products. E-commerce growth that was expected to take years happened in mere months in 2020. The report said carbon emissions for online shopping average about 36% lower than for in-store shopping.  

According to the study, circular, consolidated routes reduce transportation-related emissions by almost 90%. It also said built-out logistics networks that include urban fulfillment centers could lower transportation-related emissions by 50%.

“E-commerce has the sustainability advantage over in-person shopping. … As more companies build out their logistics networks and add distribution centers closer to urban centers, we expect that the carbon footprint per package will drop even further,” Melinda McLaughlin, Prologis’ vice president and global head of research, told FreightWaves.

The large shift to e-commerce lowered emissions per package by approximately 2.4% during the 2020 peak season, according to the research. 

The report said it conducted a series of Monte Carlo simulations, which are used to model the probability of different outcomes, in 40,000 trials. The simulations were reportedly based on consumer behaviors that have environmental impacts such as returns, number of items purchased, proximity to stores and logistics facilities and type of transport.

How can e-commerce reduce environmental impacts further?

Electrifying delivery vehicles can reduce traffic noise and lower transportation-related emissions an average of 27%, according to the study.

The Internet of Things provides valuable data that could help reduce emissions. The report said using data for load pooling and rerouting could lower emissions by 10% and congestion by 30% while reducing unit costs by 30%.

It said that packaging-related emissions are about six times higher for online shopping than for in-store purchases because they have to be individually packaged and protected while shipping. More eco-friendly packaging and automated packaging could lower these impacts.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Alyssa Sporrer.

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Alyssa Sporrer

Alyssa is a staff writer at FreightWaves, covering sustainability news in the freight and supply chain industry, from low-carbon fuels to social sustainability, emissions & more. She graduated from Iowa State University with a double major in Marketing and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about all things environmental and enjoys outdoor activities such as skiing, ultimate frisbee, hiking, and soccer.