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The Environmental Costs of Shipping

The Environmental Costs of Shipping - FRANC

Photo by Mikaela Wiedenhoff on Unsplash

Our economy relies on shipping. Everything we buy uses one mode of transportation or another. From farm to truck, truck to ship or plane, ship or plane to truck to store to your cart to your car to your home . . . you get the picture.

We could take a deep dive into the world of shipping and still not know the true environmental costs. Let’s zoom into the one we’ve all used — online shipping.

Online shopping can be eco-friendly, if we do it correctly. Our best bet is to roll up our sleeves and see what kind of work we need to do to keep the health of our planet our main focus.

Let’s look at some basic shipping information:

  • A product has a higher carbon footprint the further it travels.
  • The mode of transportation used says a lot about its environmental impact.
  • Air transport is the most harmful. Producing 60 times more carbon dioxide equivalent emissions than ocean transport. Big yuck of emissions.
  • The emissions generated on the road (via truck or trail) produce more emissions than shipping across the ocean.
  • Road transport produces 7 times the emissions compared to ocean transport.
  • Rail produces double the emissions compared to ocean transport.

Unfortunately, we can’t avoid creating emissions. We’re human. Even if we brought ourselves back to the simplest form of existence, we’d still create an impact on the environment. We can lower our carbon footprint by making conscious decisions though.

Let’s take a look at the monster we’ve created expecting our items to get to us asap.

The Cost of Two-Day or Rush Shipping

It turns out that faster shipping changes the entire shipping process. (I had no idea.) Called quite colossal , rushed shipping stresses the logistics system.

“With normal shipping, retailers are able to consolidate orders into fewer boxes, pack trucks until they’re full and choose the most efficient routes to make as many deliveries as possible over the shortest distance.”

Faster shipping messes all that up.

This video and this one break it down really well, but here’s the tldr. (Or is that . . . tldw?)

  • Rushed shipping means more trucks on the road, causing more traffic and more greenhouse gases.
  • Delivery trucks with rushed shipped packages often leave the warehouse before they are full.
  • It’s common for businesses to fly items in from other warehouses if that product is out of stock so they can get that package to you quicker.
  • Many companies send out items separately to make sure you get what you ordered as soon as possible. This not only means double transportation used to get to the same place but more packaging as well.
  • All around, it’s an environmental nightmare.

An easy solution to this mess? Picking a longer delivery window gives the company time to get the product to you in a more efficient way.

If we were reminded that two-day shipping or rushed shipping increases the emissions used to get the same package to us, we’d likely reconsider the method of delivery.

The Cost of Free Returns

As much as I’ve loved the convenience of free returns in the past, my inner alarm goes off at the word “free.” Nothing is ever free. There’s always a cost somewhere.

Free-return labels give online-shoppers the reassurance that they’re not stuck with the item if it doesn’t work for them. This reassurance leaves shoppers feeling confident about buying items they’ve never seen or buying one item in multiple sizes and sending back whatever doesn’t fit. It’s a great convenience for the consumer, but it comes at a high environmental cost.

Shipping already causes a significant amount of emissions. Sending items back to the manufacturer adds even more. Returned items often don’t go back to the local store but are sent to a global logistics system. Where they go from there and how they are sorted all depends on the company. Returns don’t always go from you back to the store. They can go from you to a sorting facility to a discount store to a country overseas that’s left flooded with our unwanted things.

Even if we do our best and make sure the item we return is in the same condition as it came to us, shipping it back can cause damage. It’s often more cost-effective for retailers to throw the damaged item away rather than clean, repair, and return it to the shelves.

As it turns out, free returns are costing us greatly.

So, what can we do? How can we be more sustainable with our online shopping? We can:

  • Pick slower shipping instead of two-day shipping.
  • Shop intentionally and not impulsively.
  • Limit the number of orders we make by keeping a running list of what we need, or let items add up — one larger order instead of multiple small orders.
  • Make sure we really need what we’re ordering and not rely on the free-return labels (even if they are there).
  • Choose shopping locally when possible. Keep online purchases for things we can’t find in our area.
  • Support businesses that are aware of the costs that shipping has on the environment and are taking actions to be more sustainable (with their packaging, offsetting emissions, etc).

Adding small changes to our shopping habits will have a positive impact over time. There is no better time than now to put the well-being of our planet over our own convenience.

If you feel like digging in more, here are further reading resources:

It’s encouraging to see positive changes and more focus on our daily environmental impact. Whether or not we see eye to eye, earth is our home, our Mama. Let’s take care of her.


Jade is a writer, potter, and gardener living in a sleepy town in Northern Ontario. They love growing food, creating functional stoneware, and hermiting with a book as much as possible. 

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