The hidden cost of faster shipping — and what we can do about it

Aileen Nowlan

Shopping has never been easier. With a click of a button, I can have a product at my doorstep in a matter of hours. But at what cost?

Behind each box is a complex chain of events that contribute to unhealthy air and a warming planet.

Last-mile delivery — the final step in the increasingly competitive process of moving items to stores and customers’ homes as quickly as possible — is adding costs beyond the price tag. Growing demand for deliveries is contributing to increased congestion and more fossil fuel-powered trucks on the roads.

As a result, greenhouse gases and other dangerous air pollutants are being pumped into the air we breathe.

But, as consumers, you can be part of the solution by using your voice and urging businesses to clean the last mile of delivery.

The hidden costs of the 'last mile'

First, here’s a quick look at what happens before an item makes it to your home, no matter how you shop for it. A single product might get transported across seas, driven cross-country and sent to a distribution center, where it waits to be sent to its final destination. Here we enter the “last mile” of delivery.

Companies are expanding their last-mile delivery networks, as well as offering faster and faster delivery times and hassle-free returns. Before the holidays, Amazon is moving toward one-day delivery rather than two days for its Prime customers.

But, quick delivery and more returns means more trucks, and freight is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases and a major source of local air pollution. And who’s paying the price? Our communities.

Deliveries are making us sick

Communities around the world continue to struggle with the health impacts of local air pollution associated with the movement of goods.

Air pollution accounts for more than 5 million premature deaths each year [PDF] — that’s more than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. And, at-risk populations — children, the elderly and people with compromised respiratory systems — are suffering the consequences.

They’re not alone. More often, minority communities are disproportionately inhaling the pollution, and rural communities are experiencing the highest growth in pollution and congestion, as logistic fulfillment centers move closer to customers to meet demand for same-day or overnight deliveries.

As we approach this year’s holiday season through to the New Year, U.S. online shopping is expected to hit record spending highs.

Adobe projects that e-commerce sales will exceed $1 billion for every day of November and December for the first time on record. The good news is, customers are already starting to pay attention to how merchandise is delivered.

4 steps consumers can urge businesses to take

As consumers, we can tell companies that they can — and must — tackle last-mile delivery challenges. You can urge businesses to:

  1. Advocate and adopt zero-emissions vehicles. Companies such as IKEA have committed to zero-emissions home delivery and are working with their supply chains to transition fleets to electric.
  2. Stop nudging customers toward overnight or expedited delivery, and provide incentives for slower shipping methods, like Amazon’s “no rush” option.
  3. Offer designated local lockers for pickup and returns of online orders to reduce the amount of individual residential deliveries made, as UPS has done.
  4. Advocate policies that support clean trucks and zero-emissions zones, as well as convenient and efficient charging infrastructure. This is the most powerful step of all.

For businesses to make these crucial changes, they need to know consumers — like you — are demanding it, so tell them you care.