Ah … the happy hum of delivery van sliding doors, the constant chiming of doorbells and the bleating of scanners as the Risk-Monger’s neighbourhood goes through the motions of another day. Funny, our quiet suburban street used to be filled with the sounds of children playing.
There was a retail revolution afoot long before the world knew what a virus could do as more and more, mostly young people, were switching to the ease of online shopping faster than you could say “Another JCPenney restructuring strategy”. Since then the High Street went low, downtown locked up and the elderly learnt the two valuable skills of 2020: how to unmute on Zoom and how to check out their cart in three easy clicks. Online shopping became the only game in town and as we slowly exit our latest round of lockdowns, it will be interesting to see how many people go back to whatever is left of our shopping centers.
But maybe this is a good time for some uncomfortable questions.
Has anyone actually asked how sustainable online retail is? Where are all of the activists reminding us of the virtue of buying local as my new webcam is packaged and flown in directly from Malaysia? What about the packaging waste? Should our streets be full of delivery vans distributing single products? Should companies be allowed to destroy returned textile items? Our environmental campaigners are all mute on this. They are probably all online at the moment clicking away while discovering the ample selection of vegan food and hemp clothing that can be cheaply imported (one-day delivery anywhere in the EU with free returns).
An Environmental Trainwreck
It doesn’t take too long to figure out how unsustainable online retail is. All you have to do is make an order. Free delivery … free returns … and those huge cardboard boxes (within boxes). How I love the thrill of that easy-open red tear-tag … ensuring I will never be able to reuse that box! How I love one-day delivery (even if it means my product is flown to my house)!
Sometimes when I pass a large delivery van, I take a peek in and see that much of the space is empty. With short delivery times, there is no question of waiting until a full load is attained. Often I order books online … but these books are not delivered by the Belgian postal service, not by some student on a Deliveroo bike, not even by an electric Amazon car … but by these huge, half-empty delivery vans. I’m told in some urban areas, these vans are well-stocked with commonly-ordered consumer products like shampoo, nappies and deodorant (a warehouse on wheels) able to deliver to houses on short notice once the “cart” is checked out. What a convenience! I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to deal with the hassle of going out and shopping in a town centre again.
In the old days (pre-COVID), we used to make one trip into a shopping area and make a wide variety of purchases (from food to books to clothes to electronics) we put in our reusable (plastic) bags. That one trip (with one vehicle or public transport) was leisure time for the family – often we went to a restaurant as well. Now each of these items is delivered to my door by different white vans (and if the shoes don’t fit, they even come back to my front door for free returns … that are often then destroyed). What this does to traffic congestion … what this does to the environment … what this does to widening the income and social gap is, well, unspeakable.
Seriously, no one is speaking about this.
The minimum wage workers in the fulfilment centres, I assume, must be paid by the kilo of cardboard they use. I ordered some coffee from an office supply company (because they give me a free Nespresso machine when I order €69 worth of coffee … and, hey, I only have two other Nespresso machines) and the amount of heavy cardboard was embarrassing. No problem Mr Monger. Paper is recyclable and unlike that evil plastic, it’s natural!
OK and what about the energy used to transport, process and recycle this paper? What about the reduction of quality with each recycling demanding the addition of virgin pulp fibres? What about the recycling mill wastewater needing treatment following the de-inking and resin removal process? What about the energy used in producing and transporting so many cardboard packs? “Natural” does not mean it is smart or sustainable. It just means the lobbyists who promote this wasteful process don’t have to work so hard when the retailers, consumers and regulators are so incapable of thinking.
Let’s not forget that plastic bags and packaging were developed to stop deforestation from the overuse of paper.
This move to abundant, guilt-free, natural paper packaging sickens me. Every shop happily wraps, double wraps and then triple wraps their items in paper where, in the past, I would have used my reusable (plastic) bag (or consumed the food off of a plate). Every Saturday, Casa Monger enjoys a take-away of durums, frites, bitterballen and those healthy Belgian fricadelle and the mountain of oil-soaked paper we then have to dispose of is embarrassing. Several of my students confessed to me their well-packaged Starbucks coffee is warm and insulated when the Uber-Eats person makes the call. Over the last few years, I have gone completely digital, stopping all printed materials and grading every assignment online … but our paper recycling bin has never been fuller.
What an environmental trainwreck!
Why don’t we ban this ecological disaster?
As this site has commonly pointed out, those who play the precaution card to “save the world” do it selectively and have no problems coming to terms with their own hypocrisy. Regulators respond to lobbying pressure from activist groups – without any pressure, they won’t act … simple (why there are no serious regulations or LCAs on organic-approved pesticides, solar panels, electric cars or recycling).
There are no campaigns by any large NGOs against online retail. Seriously … nada. Outside of complaining about low wages at fulfilment centres (but that is more out of some anti-corporate, Bezos-envy), activists seem to be doing the opposite. The French citizen panel convention for climate change, for example, proposed that the big-box stores outside of urban areas be closed down (these shopping centers allowed people to buy all of their needs with one trip and far less paper waste, distribution costs and traffic congestion).
The activist groups are not interested in stopping online retail. Save the world from fossil fuel companies! Stop plastics and pesticides! Stop nuclear! These are the things that excite and motivate our “agents of change”. It’s hard for them to feel good about themselves campaigning to stop home coffee deliveries … so the hypocrites pass over it in silence.
Oh, and one other little thing … there is no money behind campaigns to limit online retail.
Like any business, activists design their campaigns to follow the money. Renewable energy producers, the organic food lobby, the paper industry … these are the interests fueling actions against fossil fuels, nuclear energy, plastics and pesticides. There is top dollar behind our noble zealots fighting to save the planet. Who is going to fund the NGOs, feral journalists and activist scientists to impose restrictions on online retail? Ecological common sense won’t pay the rent.
Worse, environmentalists have been isolating and pathetically trying to highlight any green paint on the ecological dung-heap of online commerce – praising recycled paper, bicycle deliveries, reduced consumption (seriously, you think???). I have a hard enough time taking these zealots seriously for the campaigns they do run, so the hypocrisy of their silence on the ecological disaster of online retail comes as no surprise. Environmental NGOs will need to step up and force the regulators to do their job. This would include some of the following potential measures:
- Stop externalising the delivery costs (traffic congestion, CO2, air quality). Apply fixed rates per km to the “free delivery” claim.
- Apply disincentives to discourage small orders of consumer products.
- Demand surcharges on any rush delivery that entails air freight.
- Implement a serious LCA on paper packaging and recycling.
- Properly assess the wastewater and energy costs from paper recycling.
- Ban the practice of destroying textile returns.
The shift to digital was meant to reduce paper waste and make many occupations more sustainable and efficient. The growth of online retail, accentuated during the lockdowns, has turned any achievement on its head. The excessive number of home deliveries and the traffic, pollution and climate issues it entails has created an environmental issue that needs urgent attention. The growth of the online retail and home delivery culture has created a greater social disparity between the haves and have nots. But environmental groups are not interested … and this again reveals how their concerns are more political than ecological.
This is one more reason to not take seriously the claims of the ecological saviours in our environmental NGOs.
3 Comments Add yours
As usual very provocative and spot on. Timely because yesterday’s delivery in a 1 cubic foot box was for a hose nozzle that I could not find locally. I do recycle the paper either for drawing paper for the grand children or as a fire starter for the charcoal grill but at this rate there is more than enough paper for the next several years consumption.
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It was clear from the start of online retail (and I had direct experience on the business side) that full life-cycle energy/material, and hence monetary, costs could well be higher than conventional retail. It did not need an LCA professional to do the modeling and compare the two basic supply chains – producer to warehouse to pick-and pack to delivery van to customer – vs producer to warehouse to retailer, where customer personally drives in, picks and packs, and delivers to home. Yet right from the start there were insistent claims that the online model was cheaper, with lower resources and energy consumption. Of course customers might value convenience and choice above the costs they might have to bear. But it is in the public interest that the costs are known and properly allocated.
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