Earth Matters: When free shipping and free returns cost a lot

Earth Matters: When free shipping and free returns cost a lot

By Lynn Capuano

Another small business retail store closed on Main Street right before Christmas.

I find it depressing to walk down our Main Street and see two, three, sometimes even four or more empty storefronts on a block. I wonder why, living where we do, we cannot sustain a thriving retail center. There are at least two salons on nearly every block, but a shoe store couldn’t stay in business nor could a cafe.

I have a theory as to why so many hair and nail salons succeed while other ventures fail. There is no online option for getting your hair or nails done. You have to leave your house regardless of the weather if you want either of those services.

But what is the cost of doing so much online?

Presumably, that is what is happening and anecdotally, that is the case. People buy everything online even when there is a store with honest to goodness live people to help you find exactly what you want at the same or nearly the same price a mere block or two away from your home.

The owner of the recently closed bicycle store told me a story about a man who lived a block away from the store but bought his bike online because it was raining the day he decided to buy a bike. The man didn’t appreciate the store owner asking him if it was a 40 day/40 night deluge that kept him away.

You have likely seen at least one story about the decline of small retail business in downtown and similar shopping areas. First it was the big box stores and then it was the internet to blame. This column isn’t going to rehash the value of small and local businesses and the community harm of losing those business centers. Rather, this column is about the convenience of online shopping. That’s the whole point, right? We shop online because we can do it from the comfort of our homes at any time of day or night in any kind of attire. Plus, we can compare prices across hundreds of options and make sure we’re getting the best price. What’s not to love?

According to a 2016 article in Conservation Magazine, part of the Guardian Environment Network, online shopping is quite costly to the environment.

Though you may not drive your car to the store to go shopping, the delivery truck bringing you your online order contributes substantial emissions in the form of fine particulate matter to the air more than making up for your staying home. There are also notable impacts on traffic congestion from delivery trucks because the total number of vehicle miles traveled is not less as a consequence of increased online shopping.

The Canadian news outlet CBC reported in November of this year why these are the consequences of online shopping. It stems from ordering multiple sizes of an item and then using the free return label to return the ones that don’t fit and using the free two-day shipping option.

These kinds of perks exacerbate the environmental harms because of the logistical demands created to get orders to customers faster. And, it’s what makes online shopping the worse environmental choice in many cases.

Retailers can no longer maximize efficiency by consolidating orders in the smallest number of boxes nor can they pack their delivery vehicles to capacity and map the most efficient routes. Now delivery date becomes the priority requiring more vehicles, more packaging, more time on the road.

Not only do we want our purchases faster, we also are buying more. The ease of online shopping increases impulse purchases leading to more returns which means more transportation demands and environmental harms.

What about the purchaser? Free returns aren’t really free since they require a trip in the car to some shipping venue where you will stand in line to give someone your box to have the item you purchased online and delivered in one to two days returned somewhere in the world to be sold to someone else as quickly as possible starting the whole cycle again.

Every once in a while stop and consider if you can buy that item you are looking for online locally. Help keep a small business alive and keep some carbon and fine particulates out of the air.

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