Tag Archives: sustainability

E-Commerce: Convenience Built on a Mountain of Cardboard

Have you ever thought of the environmental impacts of your online shopping?  You may (or may not) be buying all natural and organic products online to decrease the use of toxic chemicals and your environmental impact, but you still have an impact!  The old cliché fits here: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

By MATT RICHTEL–Februay 16, 2016

Ruchit Garg, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, says that he worries that something isn’t right with his Internet shopping habit. With each new delivery to his doorstep — sometimes several in a day — he faces the source of his guilt and frustration: another cardboard box.

Then, when he opens the shipment, he is often confronted with a Russian nesting doll’s worth of boxes inside boxes to protect his electronics, deodorant, clothing or groceries. Mr. Garg dutifully recycles, but he shared his concerns recently on Twitter.

A handful of scientists and policy makers are circling the same question, grappling with the long-term environmental effect of an economy that runs increasingly on gotta-have-it-now gratification. This cycle leads consumers to expect that even their modest wants can be satisfied like urgent needs, and not always feel so great about it.

The new arms race for Internet retailers is speed, making the old Federal Express commercial, “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight,” seem as quaint as delivery by horse and buggy. Amazon boasted in a news release in December about its “fastest order delivered to date” — a Miami customer’s craving for a four-pack of Starbucks vanilla frappuccino was sated in 10 minutes flat.

In 10 major regions, Google Express delivers in a little less than two hours from dozens of stores — including toys, drugs, hardware and pet supplies. Postmates, a San Francisco start-up, promises deliveries in less than an hour. It dropped off nearly one million packages in December.

Over all, the $350 billion e-commerce industry has doubled in the last five years, with Amazon setting the pace. Its Prime membership service has grown to more than 50 million subscribers, by one estimate. (And its new faster service, Prime Now, can “get customers pretty much anything in minutes,” its website says).

Uber calls its new UberRush service “your on-demand delivery fleet”; Jet Delivery offers “white glove” service in less than two hours; Instacart can deliver groceries to your door in less than an hour.

The environmental cost can include the additional cardboard — 35.4 million tons of containerboard were produced in 2014 in the United States, with e-commerce companies among the fastest-growing users — and the emissions from increasingly personalized freight services.

“There’s a whole fleet of trucks circulating through neighborhoods nonstop,” said Dan Sperling, the founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, and the transportation expert on the California Air Resources Board. He also is overseeing a new statewide task force of trucking companies and government officials trying to reduce overall emissions from freight deliveries, including for e-commerce.

Dr. Sperling said that consumers shared as much responsibility for the environmental cost of the deliveries as the companies that provided the speedy services.

“From a sustainability perspective, we’re heading in the wrong direction,” he said.

But measuring the effect of the cardboard economy is more difficult.

E-commerce was responsible for much of the 35.4 million tons of containerboard produced in 2014 in the United States. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

There are possible trade-offs, for example. As people shop more online, they might use their cars less. And delivery services have immense incentive to find the most efficient routes, keeping their fuel costs and emissions down. For its part, Amazon said that delivering to consumers straight from huge warehouses cuts down the need to distribute to thousands of stores.

So far, though, shoppers appear to be ordering online while still driving to brick-and-mortar stores at least as much as in the past, according to Dr. Sperling and other academics. One recent study explored the environmental effect of Internet shopping in Newark, Del., and found that a rise in e-commerce in recent years by local residents corresponded to more trucks on the road and an increase in greenhouse emissions.

Ardeshi Faghri, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Delaware, said the increase of various emissions — which he estimated at 20 percent from 2001 to 2011 — “could be due to a multitude of reasons, but we think that online shopping and more delivery trucks are really one of the primary reasons.”

“Online shopping has not helped the environment,” he said. “It has made it worse.”

Other scholars say that, at least for now, online shopping appears to be complementing brick-and-mortar shopping, not replacing it.

“People who shop online also like to see and feel things,” said Cara Wang, an associate professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who studies transportation issues and has written a paper about habits of online shoppers. “And they have to return things.”

Dr. Wang and other researchers say the demand for instant delivery, in particular, creates challenges for trucking companies trying to be efficient. Instead of taking big truckloads to single retailers they now make more scattershot deliveries.

Many drivers deliver just one item. This is often the case for Postmates, which has a fleet of 15,000 freelance drivers signed up to make deliveries of whatever the customer orders — an Uber-like service, but for deliveries. The cost typically starts at $5, and a 9 percent service fee applied to the cost of the item. (The company says it also has about 5,000 deliverers who go on bike or foot in dense urban areas).


Ruchit Garg and his 3-year-old son with produce ordered online through Google. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

And the push for speed from marketers gives shoppers little incentive to wait.

“Why select one week if I can get it in one hour?” asked Miguel Jaller, an assistant professor at U.C. Davis who studies urban freight patterns.

Such is the case for Monica Rohleder, who admits to using Amazon Prime so much that “my husband jokes we keep Amazon in business.”

Ms. Rohleder, who lives in Los Angeles and works at a public relations firm, said she liked overnight delivery, but “within a couple of hours is best” because she is busy with work and her two young children. So she often does not order something until it’s urgent. “There’s the immediate gratification of getting something and checking it off your list,” she said.

One afternoon she received six boxes, from Amazon and Nordstrom, for a Hawaii trip, including bathing suits, workout clothes and coloring books. Some of the clothes did not fit, so she returned them.

She thinks more about the cardboard that comes into her house than the truck emissions, she said. “It’s embarrassing,” she added of her mass of weekly recycling.

Dennis Colley, the president of the Fibre Box Association — the trade group for the corrugated paper, or cardboard, industry — estimated that the use of boxes for e-commerce was growing faster than most other market segments. However, he emphasized the industry’s efforts to be environmentally conscious, and that 90 percent of corrugated packaging were recycled.

Amazon is aware of the cardboard issue. Since 2009, it has received 33 million comments, ratings and photographs about its packaging as part of its “packaging feedback program.” Amazon said it used that feedback to make sure that cardboard box size was consistent with the size of the product. It also works with manufacturers to send some products without additional cardboard packaging, said Craig Berman, a company spokesman.

Though recycling can make consumers think they are helping the environment, the process has its own costs, including the emissions from shipping it to recycling centers, which use a lot of energy and water. Don Fullerton, a professor of finance and an expert in economics and the environment at the University of Illinois, said one possible solution would be to make the retailers responsible for taking back the boxes. That would create incentives for them to come up with solutions for less packaging.

“And maybe not put a box inside a box inside a box,” he said

Robert Reed, a spokesman for Recology, San Francisco’s main recycling processor, which collects 100 tons of cardboard every day, has a simpler solution: “Slow down consumption,” he said. “Slow down.”

(via New York Times)

Fashion Brand Pushes Growth, Talks Sustainability

We typically don’t delve into fashion here, but since it is New York Fashion Week, here is an interesting article discussing brand responsibility to people and the environment.  How many of you have thought about the point of origin of your clothes, beyond the store or retailer you purchase it from?  What do you think of this company’s actions on sustainability and human rights?

Sharon Edelson, NEW YORK — H&M’s ambitious agenda — which includes expanding its product offerings, creating another stand-alone brand and opening more and more stores worldwide — may seem at odds with sustainability and human rights.  But not to Karl-Johan Persson, managing director of Hennes & Mauritz AB.

The Swedish retailer this year will open nearly 365 stores — almost one of every day of the year — and the size of those stores is increasing.  At a time when retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. are building smaller units, H&M in June unveiled a 57,000-square-foot flagship on Fifth Avenue and 48th Street here, and a 63,000-square-foot unit will bow on West 34th Street here next year. H&M delivers dozens of new styles daily to its stores, a massive logistical effort repeated 3,388 times around the world.

Persson defends the retailer’s seemingly endless quest for growth — even as he acknowledges most consumers have enough “stuff.”  In his view, H&M needs to grow because “consumption creates lots of jobs.  To consume less of everything could have a negative effect on the economy. Sometimes, when we’re speaking about fast fashion, it’s connected to a negative impact on the world. The customer is getting good value for their money. It creates taxes and jobs in developed countries and creates a lot of jobs in the developing world. The one thing is the environment. The right response is to continue consuming, but to consume from companies that are responsible. Tesla is a great example. They’re cracking the code.

Of course, Persson believes H&M is another responsible company. “On the environmental side, we want to continue to grow while respecting planetary boundaries,” he said. “We have to change how fashion is made. We have to make more with less. We have to go from a linear model to a circular model. We recycle in all stores the H&M brand and other brands. We’ve collected 8,000 tons of garments.  We’re closing the loop, getting fibers or yarns back into production again. We’re investing in finding new materials and recycling Tencel. Our R&D is finding solutions for fibers that can be reused and at scale. We’re optimizing this so it can be scaled up. If we do this, we’ll have a major positive impact on the world.”

To the frequent contention that fast fashion is disposable, Persson said, “We want to make fashion affordable, so it’s not throwaway fashion. We see a trend of a lot of companies growing in the low-price area. We want to offer good design and affordable, good quality. We’re investing in improving the quality.”

Persson discussed H&M’s future in an interview following a speech he gave at the BSR 2014 Conference here.

The company’s portfolio includes H&M, COS, Monkey, Cheap Monday and & Other Stories. “We’re looking into new ideas to broaden the H&M concept portfolio,” Persson said in the interview. “It’s too early to talk about, but we’re developing another concept. It’s a new brand. We’re also broadening the H&M brand and developing new categories. We’re constantly growing at H&M, and when we find new concepts that the consumer likes — like sportswear, shoes and home — we’ll make sure we have the space in stores to showcase them.”

H&M was slow to join the e-commerce wagon, launching a transactional site 13 years after its arrival in the U.S. in August 2013. “We’re working a lot on omnichannel,” Persson said. “We’re working on scanning and buying products in store, click and collect, and returning in stores.  All stores will be able to access online [e-commerce]. We see our online shop growing faster than our physical stores. We have to find ways to make the in-store experience better and more exciting. One way is customer service. It’s a work in progress.”

The retailer is looking for growth in the U.S. and China, and new markets such as Australia, India, Peru and South Africa. With global sales of $17 billion in 2013, H&M is the second-largest apparel retailer in the world after Zara parent Inditex. The global apparel market is estimated to be $1.1 trillion.

“Do [we] want to be the number-one fashion company in the world,” Persson asked, rhetorically. “When I’ve said, no, people have looked at me like I’m not telling the truth. We want to become the biggest and we could expand quicker in the race to be number one, but who knows where that will take us. If we become number one, we become number one. If it’s three or 10 or one, it will happen [organically].”

Regardless of Persson’s attitude toward growth, the retailer has been castigated for its emphasis on low prices, which naturally lead to low wages in third-world countries where it sources, especially Bangladesh and Cambodia.

“When you look at costs, H&M produces different materials but using the same suppliers as some high-end brands,” he said, arguing that the price consumers are charged for a product doesn’t necessarily impact wages.

During his speech at BSR, Persson said that H&M last year launched with experts and global trade unions a fair living wage road map. “It’s a complex issue,” he said. “It’s based on a four-way collaboration between H&M, our suppliers, the suppliers’ workers and the government [of Bangladesh].

“Higher wages will mean higher prices,” he added. “Are we prepared to pay higher prices without passing them along to the consumer? Yes. It’s already impacting margins. All the pressures are coming from analysts and investors. You have to be prepared to sacrifice short-term profits for long-term profits. There’s too much short-term thinking, especially in the fashion industry. It’s bad for the environment. There is a lot more that can be done from the standpoint of the industry. We’re not in any way alone, but there are companies that are not doing enough.”

Persson said H&M has to “buy more evenly, buy smarter and work with suppliers and the Fair Wage Network, an independent organization. Extreme poverty is falling by 90,000 people every day. We’re leading the way in countries like Bangladesh.  Since 1991, the number has been halved. I was in Bangladesh a month ago to visit factories. Overtime has been reduced and wages have increased. We’re investing in training for technical skills and negotiating skills. We’re working with the government to make sure they enforce the labor laws and that salaries are revised annually.” 

In its 2013 sustainability report, H&M surprised the fashion industry by listing the names of most, but not all, of its 1,700 factories. “We were a bit hesitant about releasing the list of factories where we do business due to the competition,” Persson said. “We thought we should get it out there and make the fashion industry more transparent and hopefully inspire others to do the same.” The company is now working with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to develop consumer labeling called the Higg Index that takes into account everything from a product’s raw materials to its end-of-life solutions. 

H&M is the world’s biggest buyer of 100 percent sustainable cotton, and the fiber’s share of the total H&M collection is growing and will continue to increase. “We don’t charge more for organic cotton, even though it’s costing us more,” Persson said. H&M is also developing new care labels with Gintex, called Clevercare that remind consumers of the climate impact of washing clothing, and encourages behavioral changes to reduce the environmental footprint of fashion consumption.

H&M’s goal of 100 percent sustainability by 2020 is ahead of schedule, Persson said. His commitment to sustainability and human rights, he said, comes from his grandfather, who in 1947 founded the company. “My grandfather often spoke of the importance of long-term thinking,” he said, “that a business must have wider responsibilities than just building profits.

(via Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week)