Nation & World

Amazon nixed 'green' shipping proposal to avoid alienating shoppers

All 'efficiency and bottom-line focused'

In September, CEO Jeff Bezos pledged to erase Amazon's contribution - some 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide eq
In September, CEO Jeff Bezos pledged to erase Amazon’s contribution — some 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2018 — and make Amazon’s business carbon neutral by 2040. (Bloomberg)

A few years ago, Amazon.com’s quick delivery team debated doing something radical for the e-commerce giant — asking shoppers to consider the environment.

The team building Amazon’s Prime Now same-day delivery service knew that the quickest delivery options tended to be the worst for the planet.

A guaranteed one-hour delivery window sometimes meant sending couriers in mostly empty vehicles darting to far-flung neighborhoods, all the while emitting roughly the same greenhouse gas emissions as a fully loaded truck or van.

Someone on the team proposed showing customers a “Green” shopping delivery option, a slightly slower delivery speed designed to give Amazon more time to cluster orders together and send out densely packed vehicles, saving on fuel, driver salaries and carbon emissions.

The idea was one of at least two examples in recent years when Amazon teams debated telling customers more about the environmental effect of their shipping choices, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

Neither was implemented, in part, because of the risk that shoppers would think twice before clicking “Buy Now,” the people said.

“It was all efficiency and bottom-line focused,” said one of the people, who requested anonymity to discuss an internal matter. “If you don’t have top-down goals around sustainability, there are always going to be trade-offs.”

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Amazon in the last year has made some big climate commitments, following calls from shareholders, activists and employees to do more to offset the company’s contribution to the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for warming the planet.

In September, CEO Jeff Bezos pledged to erase Amazon’s contribution — some 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2018 — and make Amazon’s business carbon neutral by 2040.

Last month, Bezos said he would spend $10 billion of his personal fortune on projects to combat climate change.

But Amazon is, in many ways, designed to promote consumption. From one-click shopping to one-day shipping, many employees are encouraged to focus on a set of goals geared toward removing barriers to shopping and inventing new ways of pleasing customers before they think to ask.

That obsessive focus has helped make Amazon the largest online retailer in the world. It also makes climate activists and sustainability experts — many of whom cheer the company’s bold new goals — skeptical of Amazon’s odds of success.

“What they’re trying to do is create a climate and a culture of consumption,” said Raz Godelnik, a professor at the New School’s Parsons School of Design who focuses on sustainability. “That means more products will be manufactured, more products will be shipped, more products will be returned. If you just look at the numbers, it means overall, a zero carbon contribution is not possible.”

Amazon says its commitments represent “a very aggressive and important goal.”

“Not only are we committed to the Climate Pledge to be net-zero carbon by 2040, ... we are actively working to recruit others to join us,” a spokesman said in an emailed statement. “We are making significant investments in renewable energy, carbon neutral transportation, sustainable materials, closed-loop systems and resource efficiency improvements to achieve our sustainability goals.”

Green e-commerce

Amazon’s first efforts to address its environmental impact more than a decade ago were designed to cut costs by weeding out waste.

Programs to reduce the size of boxes Amazon ships to customers, and eliminate hard-to-open plastic packaging, continue today.

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The company also deputized employees to seek out inefficiencies in their day jobs, removing light bulbs from vending machines and, in the case of a Scottish warehouse, shutting off a hot water heater during the summer months.

At the same time, the company asserted that online shopping was better for the planet than what came before.

“We believe that e-commerce is inherently more environmentally friendly than traditional retailing, and we believe that we will continue to innovate in this area over time,” the company said in a 2011 filing — language Bezos and other top executives have echoed with little change in the years since.

The logic makes some intuitive sense. One hundred people driving cars to the store to pick up an item is hugely wasteful compared with a single truck that makes rounds to each person’s doorstep.

But one shopper might grab the week’s groceries on the way home from work, likely a more efficient trip than arranging for a refrigerated truck to stop by the house. Some online deal hunters wipe out any environmental benefit of online shopping by making a trip to a store to try out a product in person. And others, freed from the need to go to the store, might jump in the car for a trip to do something fun.

“The complexity is tremendous,” said Anne Goodchild, who leads the University of Washington’s research on supply chains and logistics.

How far away, how quick

Five months before Amazon announced plans for a zero-carbon future, the company complicated its task, announcing it would make one-day delivery standard for members of its Prime free shipping program.

Since Amazon’s previous two-day unlimited shipping guarantee was introduced in 2005, Amazon has been at the forefront of raising expectations that not only should shoppers be able to buy basically anything online, but the items should arrive quickly.

Researchers say faster delivery speed tends to mean more emissions, either from the waste of a partially empty truck rushing to meet a delivery deadline, or a trip in the belly of a cargo plane from a distant warehouse.

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“Buying online or not doesn’t account for the main variable,” Goodchild said. “The main variable is how far away did something come from. And then how quickly did you demand that it get to you.”

Amazon says that, for its own operations, faster shipping doesn’t necessarily mean more emissions.

By staging inventory in depots closer to shoppers and leveraging the massive order volume of the largest online retailer, the company is able to deliver packages more efficiently than outside research would suggest, a spokesperson said.

Embedded in that assurance is expectations for ever more growth at Amazon: A bigger slice of retail sales means more deliveries to more neighborhoods, which in turn leads to more optimized routes and, theoretically, fewer emissions.

“What they’re saying is if we reach a high enough level of demand for essentially any delivery window, then we can likely do it in a more environmentally friendly manner than anybody else could do on their own,” said Teddy Forscher, who is studying the relationship between online shopping and transportation at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Amazon hasn’t released numbers to back up its claims about delivery efficiency, but outside data do support some elements of the company’s premise.

In 2019, Amazon packages started their journey to customer doorsteps 25 percent closer than shipments by other e-commerce companies, according to data from Rakuten Intelligence, which tracks emailed customer receipts.

Amazon packages also spend a day less in transit, on average.

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