Lucy Huang feels guilty about shopping online. She gets about a box a week delivered to her apartment in New York City. During Black Friday she made four orders online. But the convenience trumps guilt.
“If you have time to go shopping, then you should probably go shopping, instead of doing it online,” Huang said. “But it’s way too time-consuming to shop the way we did before online shopping. Because you go, you browse, you try things on and then you wait in line to pay. I don’t have time for that.”
For busy individuals, the speed of Internet shopping can’t be beat.
Nearly every retailer delivers these days. Amazon, Target, Walmart, Macy’s and Nordstrom are just a few of the companies that offer same-day delivery, where boxes arrive in mere hours. Courier services like Postmates, Deliv and Zipments deliver almost anything — including apparel. Subscription-box services bring entire outfits in a box to shoppers’ doors each month.
But some consumers are left worrying about other issues: like seemingly endless piles of cardboard boxes and what effect fuel-guzzling delivery trucks will have on the planet.
In a May 2018 survey by the NPD Group, the research firm found that nearly a quarter of U.S. consumers are concerned about the environment and reported buying sustainable apparel as a result.
“It’s even more true for the newer generation, for Millennials, who have considerable spending power,” said Sophie Marchessou, a partner at McKinsey & Company, who focuses on retail. “They are willing to pay more for what’s sustainable.”
At the same time, online shopping is more popular than ever. While online shopping accounted for less than 10 percent of all retail sales so far this year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly all of the growth in retail is online. Some stores now exist exclusively on the Internet, leaving eco-conscious shoppers wondering if there are more cardboard boxes floating around as a result.
“There isn’t actually,” said Rachel Kenyon, vice president of the Fibre Box Association. Her organization has been tracking shipments of corrugated card boxes since 1940, those thicker cardboard boxes frequently used to transport things in the mail.
“There’s no data that shows that there’s a spike in box shipments equal to the spike in e-commerce growth,” Kenyon said. “E-commerce is not a pure additive to box shipments. Instead, there’s a trade-off.”
That trade-off translates to cardboard boxes full of clothes that once went to department stores like Sears or Macy’s now being shipped to consumers directly. While there might be more smaller boxes shipped, the total square footage of cardboard shipped is roughly the same. That means three or four smaller boxes with clothes inside might be equal to or even less cardboard than one big box sent to a store.
“The distribution methods have changed,” Kenyon said. “But not necessarily the amount of goods that need to be shipped.”
And the numbers prove it. U.S. shipments of corrugated cardboard boxes — which includes all industries, not just retail — reached its peak in 1999 in the United States when 405 billion square feet of cardboard was shipped. The volume leveled off for a few years as more and more manufacturing was moved outside of the U.S. to places like Asia. Not surprisingly, around 2008, the height of the recession, the number of cardboard box shipments reduced dramatically.
Last year, in 2017, there were 386 billion square feet of corrugated cardboard boxes shipped in the United States. Even the rise of cardboard shipments year-over-year has been slow and steady — only 2.5 percent growth in 2017, compared with a 15 to 17 percent growth in e-commerce during the same period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“E-commerce has grown at 15 percent, so people assume there are 15 percent more boxes. But there aren’t, because there’s substitution,” Kenyon said. “You’re taking away that box that went to the store. At the end of the day, the total volume of shipments is not any larger.”
In addition, Kenyon pointed out that online shopping accounts for less than 10 percent of cardboard box shipments, while industries like manufacturing ship more than six times the amount of cardboard.
And, unlike in a retail store, where clothes arrive in a box and then go into a baler and no one ever sees the packaging, a consumer comes face to face with a cardboard box with every single purchase.
“What we’re finding is that with e-commerce, people are more aware of packaging,” Kenyon said.
Consumers seem willing to recycle if it’s convenient for them, according to a survey conducted by the Fibre Box Association. People in rural areas without access to recycling facilities or people in apartments who simply don’t have the space to recycle are the least likely to do it.
Meanwhile, other solutions are popping up. Some apparel doesn’t even come in boxes anymore; it’s shipped in envelopes instead. Amazon offers shoppers the option of consolidating orders in as few packages as possible. UPS delivery trucks have a practice of avoiding left turns, so delivery drivers don’t waste gas sitting idly at a traffic light.
Elena Craft, senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund said getting two- or three-day delivery is more efficient than two- or three-hour delivery, because then delivery drivers don’t have to interrupt their regular routes to make unplanned deliveries.
Still, the popular perception remains that extra delivery trucks on the streets could be causing even greater pollution problems.
Ilissa Ocko, a climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said this isn’t always the case.
“You can just imagine everyone having their own individual car, making a few trips here and there to get their gifts,” she said. “And all that being replaced with a couple of delivery trucks that are packed with gifts that are just dropping them off on a route.
“So even though we see these dirty trucks driving around, they actually can be very practical because they pack a lot of stuff into a small space,” Ocko said.
Instead, she said the situation varies case by case, with factors like distance traveled and type of vehicle used contributing to the overall emissions dispensed.
In some instances, courier services in large cities like San Francisco and New York might actually be better for the environment because the delivery person travels by bicycle or on foot to deliver products from a retail store directly to consumers, eliminating the need to both ship boxes and use gas-powered vehicles.
Combining shopping trips with other activities or making mass orders online are other practices that could potentially reduce one’s carbon footprint.
“You really can’t say that one [online shopping or shopping in real life] is necessarily better than the other overall,” Ocko said. “That would be misleading for individuals who have different lifestyles.”