Free brief of the week: e-commerce faces pressure to go green

As the world awakens from a COVID-19 induced hibernation it is becoming increasingly clear that we are entering into a ‘new normal’ where sustainability has been granted a renewed focus. Prior to the pandemic consumers were already beginning to consider the environmental impact of their lifestyles. One positive consequence of nationwide lockdowns was a significant drop in CO2 emissions as commuter journeys were suspended, factories closed, and non-essential travel halted. Life is now returning to normal and unfortunately, CO2 emissions are on the rise.

However, it appears that as nations begin to recover from the virus, they are moving to tackle environmental issues that have understandably been on the backburner during the crisis. For example, the plastic straw ban in the UK was delayed from April to October and in the US, several states postponed the ban on single-use plastic bags.

There are already plans in place to reduce carbon emissions. Many governments have outlined strategies for clean air zones and diesel bans to be implemented over the next few years. One concern that the British Department for Transport (DfT) is attempting to address is the number of delivery vans on the road due to an increase in e-commerce consumption. COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of e-commerce, especially as a new tech-savvy customer base emerges. With a growing list of brick-and-mortar stores announcing closures, it appears that despite stores reopening consumers will have little choice outside the realm of e-commerce. According to some figures, online retail spend is forecast to reach £75bn in the UK and €3.8bn in Ireland by 2024.

In June, it was announced that the British government is considering introducing a charge on all online orders to decrease nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and congestion in the country. According to The Times, a quarter of all NOx road transport emissions are caused by light commercial vehicles, this plan would help cut down the number of delivery vans in the UK. Currently, in attempts to reduce NOx and CO2 emissions, the DtF is encouraging vehicle owners to invest in electric vehicles, offering a grant of £8,000 towards the costs of an electric van.

However, electric vehicles or new fuels only combat a fraction of carbon emissions. For true transformation, sustainable practices need to be implemented throughout the entire supply chain. One of the more pressing issues concerning e-commerce is the carbon emissions related to non-recyclable packaging, which is often offset the emissions prevented by carbon-neutral delivery options.

According to DHL, e-commerce packaging is handled 20 times more than products purchased in a brick-and-mortar store increasing its likelihood of being damaged during transit. Replacing damaged products contributes more greenhouse gas emissions and resource usage in comparison to the original packaging used. e-commerce, therefore, requires more durable and robust packaging, which in general means more material is used.

Companies are already making significant headway in reducing single-use plastic as they move towards becoming more sustainable. The global sustainable plastic packaging market gathering momentum and is projected to grow from $89bn in 2020 to $117.3bn by 2025. In June 2020, Amazon India announced that it had achieved its goal of eliminating all single-use plastic packaging in its fulfilment centres. The company has introduced a 100% plastic free and biodegradable paper tape, replacing thin cling films used for customer deliveries.

In January 2020, Colgate launched ‘Colgate Smile for Good’, a recyclable toothpaste tube. Currently, many toothpaste tubes cannot be recycled through conventional means as they are made from aluminium sheets sandwiched between layers of plastic laminate. The new Colgate packaging uses high-density polyethylene (HDPE), the recyclable plastic used to make milk bottles.

Many sustainable packing solutions are still relatively confined to more niche markets, however, with the increasing demand for e-commerce companies will need to act swiftly if they wish to meet both consumer expectations and governmental policies. Already, it appears that more retailers and logistics providers are already considering implementing more sustainable practices into their supply chains.

Source: Transport Intelligence, 16 July, 2020

Author: Beth Poole