A new study has concluded that online retailing can make a significant contribution to the development of a future low-carbon economy.
On balance it appears that, in the case of small non-food items, the home delivery operation is likely to generate considerably less CO2 than a conventional trip to the shops. And this environmental advantage can be reinforced further if online retailers and their carriers can alter and improve some of their current operating practices.
The study was undertaken as part of a larger green research project being carried out by the Logistics Research Centre at Heriot-Watt University by Dr Julia Edwards and Professor Alan McKinnon. A report commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport in the UK (CILT) appears in the July issue of the Institutes journal Focus.
The key to comparing the environmental performance of online deliveries and shopping trips lies in the last mile the final link in the supply chain to the home. This last mile is the most energy intensive part of the journey and typically generates more CO2 emissions than all of the other elements of the logistics process where the benefits of bulk transport apply.
In simple terms online deliveries, where the average number of delivery drops by the driver and his van is 120 on a 50 mile round, are far less carbon generating than conventional shopping trips where the average car journey is 12.8 miles, or even by bus, where the average journey is 8.8 miles. Because of the dedicated nature of its work the delivery van produces just 181g of CO2 per drop compared with 4,274g by car, or 1,265g by bus. As such the car journey generates a staggering 24 times more carbon than the online van delivery, and the bus seven times more than the van.
However, comparisons become more complicated when issues such as failed deliveries and product returns are considered, together with the fact that a personal shopping trip may also be coupled with other activities. Even so, home deliveries do appear to retain a substantial environmental advantage.
The study concludes that there are a number of actions that online retailers and parcel carriers could take to reduce the carbon footprint of home deliveries and to give themselves an even clearer environmental advantage. Drop densities should be maximised and low-emission vehicles, for example, electric vehicles, be encouraged. Failed deliveries could be eliminated by the use of reception boxes at peoples homes facilitating a delivery to an absent householder and avoiding a wasteful second journey. Separate, conveniently located collection points, possibly at shops passed as part of a daily routine journey, could be made available.
Over time, further efficiency measures could include the consolidation of orders to a particular address in a single delivery, and the promotion of off peak/out-of-hours deliveries through variable delivery pricing, allowing delivery vans to run more of their mileage at fuel efficient speeds and in congestion free traffic conditions.