CMU Researchers Say E-commerce Could Be Environmen
Findings indicate delivery process needs to be tweaked
OAKLAND -- Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University weren't convinced that e-commerce was as environmentally friendly as Internet retailers were touting it to be.
But rather than simply judging e-commerce by its cover, the researchers -- part of CMU's Green Design Initiative -- decided to take a look at electronic book retailing to see whether the process really lessens the environmental impact of traditional retail business.
"We were curious because electronic commerce was growing whether it was more environmentally friendly ornot," said Lester Lave, a CMU finance and economics professor and Green Design head.
The group's findings? Well, the jury is still out.
Sure, e-commerce reduces car emissions by limiting consumers' trips to the mall, cuts down on the amount of retail space needed and eliminates merchants' returns of unsold stock to the publishers, usually by truck.
However, books ordered online most likely are shipped first by air to a warehouse and then taken to homes or offices by gas-guzzling trucks. Also, those books are packed individually, and the packaging likely won't be recycled.
It makes all that talk about e-commerce reducing emissions sounds like, well, a lot of hot air, right?
Not so fast, said Mr. Lave. If consumers drive at least five miles to purchase a book from a traditionalretail store and average sales of the book stay true to form -- leaving about 35 percent of copies orderedto be returned unsold to the publisher, then e-commerce is friendlier to the environment, he said.
However, if consumers don't drive to purchase a book and returns are lower than 35 percent, e-commerce actually can be harsher on the environment, he said.
The group's formal findings, which will be released for publication in scientific journals early next year,show that with a few tweaks in the delivery process, e-commerce can be the friend of the environment it is already said to be, Mr. Lave said.
The U.S. Department of Commerce estimated retail e-commerce volume for the United States to be around $5.3 billion in the fourth quarter of 1999, or about 0.64 percent of all retail purchases in the quarter.However, the number excluded online travel purchases, such as vacation packages and airline tickets, financial transactions and ticket brokering.
It takes substantial amounts of electricity to keep the Internet running. Also, air delivery is three times more expensive per ton-mile and uses about five times as much fuel as trucking, said H. Scott Matthews, a research director with the Green Design Initiative and a research scientist in economics at CMU's graduate school of industrial administration.
Mr. Lave said companies could look to use more efficient ways to get packages to where they need to go.They could bundle orders together so multiple trips aren't taken to the same delivery area and theycould offer cheaper shipping rates for two- or three-day delivery -- rather than over-night -- to cutdown on the number of flights needed to make deliveries.
"My guess is the vast majority of people don't need that book by tomorrow morning," Mr. Lave said.
At the same time, he said traditional retailers, such as toy sellers, could also use the Internet andinformation technology to create less waste.
For example, he said most toys sold from stores this Christmas were ordered from foreign manufacturersin June, production took place between June and July and the toys were shipped to the United States by September.
The problem is, toy retailers don't know when they order whether a toy is going to sell well and often are stuck with units that must be returned -- creating additional environmental pollution.
If those retailers made better use of information technology, they could order a smaller amount of each product and, as the buying season goes on, use information technology to track sales and determine whethermore units are needed, Mr. Lave said.
Marla Ferrency, information director for GreenMarketplace.com -- an Oakland-based company that sells environmentally friendly products online, and a board member of the Group Against Smog and Pollution,said studies, such as the one at CMU, will help raise the public's awareness of commerce-related environmental issues.
"I think that type of study is definitely important," Ms. Ferrency said.
"I think if people realize this is an issue ... it could help change people's habits."
She said GreenMarketplace tries to make e-commerce more environmentally friendly, using an air carrierthat delivers items to the post office, so they can be delivered with the regular mail, rather than byspecial delivery.
Also, if a customer orders more than one item, the company ships the multiple items in a single package, rather than several boxes, Ms. Ferrency said.