Online sales account for a growing portion of the retail trade in the US. And Amazon sells more online than anyone else. So sustainable online shopping almost unavoidably means shopping more sustainably on Amazon.
For years, Amazon resisted releasing its carbon footprint data, but it finally did in 2019. Here are some aspects of what goes into it:
- The power needed to run all the server farms
- Building and operating warehouses
- Shipping of products to and from warehouses
It’s easy enough to find articles online explaining what Amazon ought to do to be more eco-friendly. There’s not much consumers can do to make it happen. What we can do is make sure our own shopping choices as sustainable as possible.
Be mindful of packaging
The excess packaging that comes with online shopping is actually a smaller part of the environmental impact of shopping than emissions from all the vehicles involved. But it’s also the part that consumers must deal with directly.
Search Google, and you’ll find plenty of questions about how to get Amazon to ship without plastic. Apparently at one time, you could send an email requesting it, but Amazon pulled the plug on that program a couple of years ago. It does offer something it calls frustration-free packaging. It’s only available for certain products, which seems frustrating to me.
You might be able to reuse some of the boxes and plastic air pockets, but after a while you’ll be overwhelmed.
So recycle the packaging.
You can flatten the boxes and put them at the curb. You’ll have to take the various plastic films to a store that accepts them.
But to get less packaging in the first place:
Buy more at a time and less frequently
You don’t get in your car to buy one thing, take it home, and then get in your car to buy one more thing, do you? But lots of people order something from Amazon and then, before it arrives, order something else. It has a bad environmental impact
You can reduce the packaging you get by waiting until you have several different things to order. At the same time, you reduce the number of delivery trips and therefore emissions from the trucks. Two ways to shop more sustainably on Amazon in one tip!
Buy non-perishables in bulk
From cleaning supplies to boxes of pasta, you use up a lot of what you buy. Whatever you must buy continually, get as much at once as you can conveniently store. Again, it reduces both packaging and emissions.
Use the shopping list feature
Amazon does offer one handy feature that helps you shop more sustainably.
Suppose you’re running low on something but don’t need to get more right away. Or suppose you think of something you’d like to have but don’t need it right away. Add these items to the Amazon shopping list when you think of them.
Then, when you place an order for something, check your shopping list and get it all at once.
Choose the greenest available products
Amazon’s product descriptions identify what the product is made from. If you notice that it’s plastic, you can look for an alternative. For kitchen utensils, for example, look for silicone instead. For outdoor furniture, look for composite lumber instead. Instead of polyester in clothing, etc., look for any natural fiber—even rayon—instead.
Plastic may be the single most problematic material, but it’s not alone. Prefer a reusable product to a disposable one, plastic or not. You can find plenty of substitutes for paper towels, for example.
Buy used on Amazon
Almost any advice you find for sustainable shopping tells you to buy stuff at thrift stores. But, of course, you can’t shop at a thrift store online.
Amazon offers used products. Buying used from Amazon has the same environmental advantage as buying used from a thrift store or flea market: A used product doesn’t have the same embedded energy as a new product.
Choose standard shipping
I have mentioned emissions a couple of times.
Almost every purchase requires putting a vehicle on the road, and it’s usually not a bicycle. Americans drive a car for almost 95% of all shopping trips. And most Americans do not drive electric or hybrid cars.
Plus, Amazon ships so much by air freight that it has its own fleet of planes. Air freight is the least eco-friendly of all methods of shipping.
Suppose 50 people go to the same store and return home with one package. Now consider the difference if one delivery truck delivers those 50 packages instead. It goes fewer total miles.
Online shopping looks greener in that case, but we can easily sabotage it.
Two-day shipping means, among other things, that the delivery trucks might be less than half full. Suppose you want five items and they’re all available at the same store. You probably go to the store and get them all at once. Alas, it’s so convenient to order a single item online that some people might order those same five items separately on consecutive days and request fast shipping.
That’s bad, but some people go to a store to browse, then order the product online if it’s cheaper. They add the emissions of online delivery to the emissions of visiting the store. Plus, they have cheated the store. After all, they got some value from the browsing trip and declined to pay the store for it.
Drone delivery may save some emissions. Amazon has already started using it. A lot depends on how much renewable energy is available to keep the drones charged. And, alas, our addiction to speed and convenience can sabotage whatever good environmental impact drones offer.
Look for local products
Local products in this case means products made in the country where you live or a neighboring country. In the US, then, it means that you prefer products made in the US, Canada, or Mexico. In Australia, it means that you prefer products made in Australia, New Zealand, or Indonesia. Only people who live in China or neighboring countries should prefer products made in China.
Why? Part of the environmental footprint of everything we buy comes from the transportation of the goods. The closer products are made to where you live, the less distance they have to travel to your home. And the more eco-friendly your shopping is. Unfortunately, Amazon conceals that information, but it is possible to find it.
Choosing standard shipping over fast shipping may be the single biggest factor in shopping more sustainably on Amazon, but let’s not forget the environmental impact of choosing domestic products over imports.
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