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Overnight delivery: A convenient option for shoppers, but a killer for the environment

It’s a convenient and tempting option, but the same-day or overnight delivery you choose when shopping online may be harming the environment more than you think.

According to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), rushed delivery is a more harmful option for the environment. That’s because of the extra transportation it creates.

For example, if you’re buying a book online, and decide you want it delivered overnight, the company is going to get that product to you as soon as possible, even if that means the delivery truck is not full.

“There is very little time for consolidation of vehicles at that stage. There’s not a lot of time to get that product organized and consolidate with other packages to get to other people’s homes,” Sharon Cullinane, a researcher in transport policy and the environment at the University of Gothenburg, said.

“They need to get rid of the product right away, they won’t wait. So the van turns up the next morning and it’s not full.”

She said with a five-day delivery, the company can make sure the van is packed before it leaves for the neighbourhood or town.

“The companies want to consolidate, it saves them money to do this,” Cullinane said.

But it seems Canadians prefer the fast delivery options. According to a 2018 UPS survey on online shopping, 63 per cent of respondents said when they shop online they expect orders placed by noon to qualify for same day delivery.

Sixty-one per cent said they expect orders placed by 5 p.m. to qualify for overnight service.

Miguel Jaller, from the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California Davis, told Vox, that the expectation of rushed delivery means companies no longer can consolidate their items as efficiently as they did years ago.

“Before, companies were able to consolidate, to optimize their distribution. Now, because some of them are offering really fast and rushed deliveries, that disintegrates the consolidation,” he said.

“Every individual is buying more and wanting those goods to be at their home really fast. That creates more vehicles, more traffic, and potentially more emissions.”

What about shopping locally?

According to the MIT researchers, local is not always the best option for the environment.

The MIT study found that a traditional store shopper had a carbon footprint almost two times that of an online shopper.

“In fact, the main component of the traditional shopper is the customer transportation, whereas [the online shopper’s] emissions are linked to a parcel carrier, who uses an optimized delivery process,” the authors stated.

The packaging is the main culprit of the online shopping footprint. That’s until you speed up the delivery time. The researchers found that fast delivery options for online shoppers almost tripled the impact of freight transportation.

However, Cullinane said there are still a lot of variables the study has to take into account.

She said she tried to recreate the study, but shopping locally is dependent on many factors, like mode of transportation you take (walking versus driving), how long the drive is, if you’re carpooling, etc.

“If you pick up the goods en route to something else, you are probably doing very little damage, but if you’re making a specific journey to multiple places to shop, it’s more environmentally damaging,” she said.

What can you do to lower your carbon footprint?

If you’re hoping to lower your carbon footprint, Cullinane recommends opting for a slower shipping option and trying to consolidate your orders.

She said many people also “overorder” and end up having to send items back. So making sure you order the right amount of items can also save in transportation costs.

“There are simple things you can do, even being there with the delivery happens. If you aren’t at home it has to go back to the depot. So it’s taken back and brought out again,” she said.

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