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It’s so easy. One click of your mouse and you’ve ordered just what you want, delivered to your doorstep in just a few days or even a few hours. Since COVID-19, our online shopping habits, particularly all those groceries, have increased dramatically. What that has meant for our carbon footprint might just surprise you. Miguel Jaller with the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies will unfold all the complexities of e-commerce in this brief bonus episode of Unfold.

In this episode:

Miguel Jaller, Co-director of the Sustainable Freight Research Center at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies

Episode Transcript

Amy Quinton: Hey, Kat, do you find yourself ordering more online now with coronavirus? Kat? Kat?

Kat Kerlin: I'm sorry, what was that? The Instacart driver was at the door. You were saying? 

Amy Quinton: I was wondering if you were ordering more online now, but clearly you are. You know, I definitely am too. Even groceries when I can, which I never used to do. But even without coronavirus, I never hesitated to order most things online. I feel like Amazon just changed everything. 

Kat Kerlin: Yeah, it did. I didn't really even use it that much, just even a few months ago. But lately I've bought everything from books and gift certificates to popsicle molds and sushi kits online. And fon't judge. You've got to keep the kids busy. 

Amy Quinton: Well, as you know, all that shipping and freight affects our greenhouse gas emissions. 

Kat Kerlin: Yeah, freight accounts for about a quarter of our emissions in California. So, every easy purchase with just the click of a mouse has both physical and environmental repercussions, even though it may not seem like it at the time. 

Amy Quinton: Last year, consumers spent $600 billion dollars online in the U.S., up 14 percent from the previous year. And yes, that number is rising as we deal with a pandemic. 

Kat Kerlin: So, does all that online ordering have a bigger carbon footprint than getting in your car and driving to the store? 

Amy Quinton: The answer to that, according to our experts, is it depends. 

Kat Kerlin: It depends? 

Amy Quinton: Yeah, and that's Miguel Jaller's favorite phrase. He co-directs the UC Davis Sustainable Freight Research Center at the Institute of Transportation Studies. 

Miguel Jaller: E-commerce is not bad. I mean, there are many things that where e-commerce has an advantage from you going to the store. So, it depends. 

Amy Quinton: And before we get into what it depends on, I asked him lots of other questions, too, like if you order everything at once so that it's all in the same shipment or bundle, does that make a difference in our environmental footprint? 

Miguel Jaller: Again, everything depends. 

Amy Quinton: Is there a bigger environmental cost if you want your package delivered quickly, like same day? 

Miguel Jaller: I mean, it always depends. 

Kat Kerlin: Okay, so much for simple answers. 

Amy Quinton: But we're going to get to the bottom of this, in this brief bonus episode of Unfold. And Miguel will help explain it all. 

Theme: Climate models all agree that temperatures are going to increase. It’s going to be hotter; it’s going to be drier; fires are going to burn more frequently. Maybe this is never going to be the way it was again. We need to come up with ways to literally pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. How are we going to work together to solve a challenge like climate change?

Amy Quinton: Coming to you from our closet studios as we shelter in place across the Sacramento region, this is Unfold, a UC Davis podcast that breaks down complicated problems and discusses solutions. This week, we unfold the environmental footprint of ecommerce. I'm Amy Quinton. 

Kat Kerlin: And I'm Kat Kerlin. 

Amy Quinton: So, as we said, e-commerce has been growing tremendously, thanks mostly to Amazon. Miguel says it's been growing by double digits each year for the last decade. 

Kat Kerlin: And you suggested coronavirus has increased e-commerce. 

Amy Quinton: Right? Miguel has been researching this. He said since the COVID-19 pandemic began, online orders have increased 30 percent. 

Kat Kerlin: 30 percent? Okay. I guess it's not just me then. 

Amy Quinton: It is not. Online purchases of some goods increased tenfold in just April and May during those first stay at home orders and probably not surprisingly, e-groceries saw the largest increase in sales while sales of clothes went down. 

Kat Kerlin: Now, that makes sense. I mean, why would people buy clothes when they can't go out and show them off? 

Amy Quinton: You mean you don't dress up for these Zoom conversations, Kat? 

Kat Kerlin: You've seen me. 

Amy Quinton: Well, clothing is also the largest segment of e-commerce and it tanked in April. But Miguel says some retailers were affected by other issues during the initial phase of the virus. 

Miguel Jaller: There were disruptions in the supply chain. They had disruptions in terms of their distribution capacity. Warehouses got impacted by the pandemic. They had shortages of drivers, shortages of workers as some of those facilities, some facilities may have to reduce working hours because of direct impacts. 

Amy Quinton: Also, you'll recall some products and imports from China stopped. 

Kat Kerlin: So, our increase in e-commerce didn't necessarily drive up greenhouse gas emissions during the stay at home orders? 

Amy Quinton: Well, we know our transportation system overall has seen a decline in greenhouse gas emissions during this pandemic. But Miguel says there is a lot to examine when looking at e-commerce's impact. 

Miguel Jaller: But there are many, many factors that affect the supply and logistics. One was because there was less traffic on the roads. Trucks were able to travel faster without so much inefficiency. Also, deliveries were able to find parking easier. There was not that much congestion in cities and also people were not going to the stores. There was a huge reduction on that shopping travel. 

Amy Quinton: So even though there might have been more e-commerce, you think there was conservation in other areas just because of the lack of traffic? 

Miguel Jaller: Probably, yes, especially because the last mile is the largest component of the footprint. And if you are able to optimize that, then you'll get some benefits. 

Kat Kerlin: So, it's all about the last mile. We should explain what that means. 

Amy Quinton: The last mile is when the delivery truck goes from the warehouse or the distribution center to your doorstep. 

Kat Kerlin: So really, it could be several miles, but it's called the last mile. And this is what has the biggest environmental impact. 

Amy Quinton: It's grown tremendously in the last few years, the ability to get a package from anywhere and in many cases in a relatively short amount of time has companies sending out more trucks into neighborhoods. 

Kat Kerlin: How much of a role does fast shipping play? 

Amy Quinton: Well, that's a good question. Fast shipping has really changed the landscape. Several years ago, you might recall that Amazon offered free one day delivery, but you had to purchase a certain amount. Then last year, all of a sudden, the cost of the purchase no longer mattered. If you were a Prime member and needed a four-dollar item, they'd ship it to you for free that same day. 

Kat Kerlin: Right. Incredibly convenient for the consumer and let me guess, incredibly bad for the environment? 

Miguel Jaller: Miguel says when someone wants a delivery fast, companies begin to prioritize speed over system efficiency. He says shipping loses efficiency when you can't combine as many orders as possible on the same truck. Miguel compares it to mass transit. 

Miguel Jaller: Consolidation is what drives better efficiency. When we talk about passengers, that's why public transit is better than everybody using their own cars because you are consolidating a lot of trips in one train or one bus. So, it's similar to freight, the more you can consolidate in the same vehicle, the less resources you're using to move those people or cargo. When you start shortening the deliveries or when you offer niche products, then you don't have the volume to consolidate, then that efficiency goes down. 

Kat Kerlin: So, if we want same day delivery companies are more likely to put fewer items on the truck. 

Amy Quinton: There are trucks driving around, believe it or not, that are nearly empty. And some companies have also begun to contract out these delivery services using passenger cars. But that also puts more cars on the road, likely from companies that have no logistics training. 

Kat Kerlin: But Miguel said whether e-commerce's environmental impact is greater than traditional shopping always depends, on what? 

Amy Quinton: Well, he listed a few factors. 

Miguel Jaller: What type of vehicles are using. How far are you going to the stores? What else are you doing on your way to the store? Are you going to the store at the same time you are going to the bank, going to eat out, going to pick up your kids from school because now you're minimizing the actual impact from the shopping activity. 

Kat Kerlin: Similarly, if you can walk to the store, best not get a truck to deliver your purchase. 

Amy Quinton: Yep, although I've done that before. Guilty. Didn't want to walk down to the Target and ordered from New Jersey.  Felt a little guilty about that. 

Kat Kerlin: Speaking of guilt, consumers have a large role to play in this. 

Amy Quinton: And companies, too, actually. 

Kat Kerlin: So, let's talk about that. Should we just not order fast shipping? 

Amy Quinton: Miguel says the more constraints we put on the delivery process, including things like putting everything in one bag, because nowadays they all may come from somewhere else. All of that creates more opportunity for inefficiencies and an increased carbon footprint. He also says we've got to get out of this mindset of consumption. 

Miguel Jaller: That will also help with a reduction on returns that can be quite large in some of the segments - up to 50 percent for clothing. So that's a lot of returns. And also all this impulse shopping that happens every few minutes. “Oh, I forgot to buy this,” and then they go in make a click. 

Kat Kerlin: 50 percent returns for clothing? That's huge. 

Amy Quinton: It was surprising to me, too. But there are also companies that have set up their business model this way, like clothing companies that ask consumers to just keep what they want to purchase and just send the rest back. 

Kat Kerlin: Yeah, I totally do Stitch Fix and it costs me nothing to do the returns. 

Amy Quinton: Right. So why wouldn't you? Miguel had a few other tips, too. If you can get everything you need delivered on a regular basis. It helps companies plan and distribute more efficiently. 

Kat Kerlin: I imagine not a lot of consumers know all this. 

Amy Quinton: Miguel says companies could help educate consumers about these things, too, by being more transparent about the actual environmental costs of fast delivery or, say, allowing customers a greener delivery option. 

Kat Kerlin: It sounds like this is something consumers should demand if we really want to make a difference for the climate. 

Amy Quinton: I really think consumers hold a lot of power in this. I mean, after all, we're the ones that keep buying and wanting it delivered fast, right? Companies are just responding to what we've been asking for. 

Kat Kerlin: I did read that at least with Amazon, they'll soon purchase zero emission trucks. 

Amy Quinton: They've agreed to purchase 100,000 of them to begin deliveries next year. And at least in this state, we're on a road to mandating that truck fleet operators purchase zero emission vehicles. 

Kat Kerlin: Right. The California Air Resources Board just this year is making manufacturers ramp up sales of zero emission vehicles. 

Amy Quinton: So, whether by regulation or voluntarily, I think we're going to begin to see greener e-commerce. 

Kat Kerlin: You can find out more about Miguel Jaller's research on our website at ucdavis.edu/unfold or visit our climate website, climatechange.ucdavis.edu. 

Amy Quinton: Thanks for listening to Unfold.

Credits: Unfold as a production of UC Davis. It's produced by Cody Drabble. Original music for Unfold comes from UC Davis alumnus Damian Verrett and Curtis Jerome Haynes.