The Damaging Effects of Instant Gratification and Our Shopping Habits

Today, online shopping is more popular than ever. Ignoring the “retail is dying” debate for the sake of this post, ordering everything from your socks to your groceries has become popular as consumers seek pricing competitiveness, greater variety, and above all: convenience.

The ability to shop online 24/7 without ever having to leave the couch has become something that we’re all too accustomed to. I’d be lying if I said that the bulk of my shopping didn’t occur online. I buy everything from furniture for my apartment, to the tools required to put it together, online. Why? Because it’s become more convenient. Having to deal with the sales pitch at a furniture store, or making the drive to Walmart, navigating half the store before finally finding the right aisle, does not sound appealing as a valuable use of time. Making a few clicks on my phone and having it show up on my doorstep a few days later, does.

That goes without saying that there’s always a middle ground. As my extremely lofty expectations begin to show, there’s occasionally things that I can’t necessarily wait two days for. In comes this first-world problem, internal conflict every time I need something. Is it something I can wait a couple days for? The majority of consumers that are price and convenience conscious face the same debate. It’s precisely why I think we currently, and will continue, to see retail still heavily dominating market share. Retail is battling to keep its relevance with price matching and unique shopping experiences, and that’s why experimental retail is becoming such an important topic of discussion. We see that paying dividends for retailers like Best Buy. Above all else though, it’s quicker.

As retailers try to fight off the shift, we see online pushing back too. Amazon is paving the way in logistics with not only its Prime offerings, but its additional services like Prime Now and experimentation projects like drone delivery. Gig-based companies like Instacart and Postmates are jumping in on the on-demand scene, as instant gratification is becoming dominant in our shopping habits. These services are blurring the line for convenience timeframes for consumers, making it easier than ever to opt for online shopping versus in-store.

But, just how costly is it?

Not the cost of your latest Amazon order, but the cost on our environment.

When online shopping was the new kid on the block, it was well-argued that ordering things online was a net-benefit for our environment when compared to brick and mortar. Shipping was expected to take weeks, not days or hours. Logistic companies could pack trucks full, wait for routes to be optimized, and in most cases use ground over air. Simply put, they were given more time.

As our demands for speed and convenience have grown as consumers, we’ve seen a change in the way logistics companies handle packages and deliveries. While next-day air or two-day delivery speeds have existed for carriers like FedEx, UPS, and DHL, we’ve seen Amazon popularize the idea of two-day shipping with it’s Prime membership. We see competitors like Walmart competing to offer the same speeds, and many online retailers from Adidas to WayFair offering two-day shipping as the standard. Online retailers are evolving to cave into our gratification demands.

Because of that, package optimization, routing, and efficiency are thrown out the window in favor of speed. Planes are notoriously larger polluters than vehicles, even when compared to diesel guzzling trucks. So when you live on the east coast, and the product you’re ordering resides on the west coast, you can bet your two-day order package is going out on that next plane. Rushing packages results in less efficiency, and a higher toll on the package’s carbon footprint. That goes without saying, there are cases where smaller time-frame delivery is becoming just as green as previously longer delivery windows. Amazon is growing their fulfillment center network exponentially, and in urban centers and addresses where there’s high concentration, your package doesn’t need to travel nearly as far. It can be more efficiently routed and delivered.

To back up all those claims, a MIT study from 2017 analyzed exactly this issue. What’s the cost on the environment for online shopping when compared to that of brick and mortar retail? It found that online shopping typically had a lower carbon footprint…except when speed is involved.

Delivery times aren’t the only damage on the environment when it comes to online shopping, though. Look at packaging.

We have to consider that not only are we wasting product packaging when we buy something, we’re now also wasting delivery packaging. Online is outpacing brick-and-mortar yearly growth by anywhere from ten to fifteen percent, so we’re seeing a huge rise in the amount of cardboard and plastic waste. As previously reported by Fast Company, there are an estimated 165 billion packages shipped in the United States every year. To put that into perspective, that’s nearly 1 billion trees used for cardboard and over 500 cardboard boxes per person, per year.

If you’ve ever ordered anything from Amazon, or really any retailer for that matter, you’ve probably encountered those air-packs to protect the contents of your package. Thank God, your socks were protected inside that cardboard box. Couldn’t have had them bouncing around unprotected. What if they broke? With the United Nations estimating by 2050 that there will be more plastic waste than fish by weight in the ocean, these air-packs (or any plastic packaging for that matter) aren’t helping either. As a Forbes article pointed out, there’s other categories like meal kit delivery, which has one company, Blue Apron, using 192,000 tons of plastic ice packs per year.

When we shop online, we turn a blind eye to the effects it has on our environment. Our consistent growth of instant gratification and shopping online gets the best of us, and sometimes we forget the daunting environmental impact it creates.

Fortunately, we’re starting to see companies grappling with the issue. Amazon now offers the option on multiple-item orders to bundle them together and not ship separately. We also see frustration-free packaging popping up on thousands of products sold by the company. It benefits not only the environment, but Amazon’s bottom line as well. It’s a win-win.

Startups are emerging to tackle the problem too, like local packaging company, TemperPack, who is creating sustainable insulation for food and pharma deliveries. Other projects like the Give Back Box, or Lauren Singer’s Package Free Shop are re-using boxes in a way that is both socially and environmentally conscious.

Ultimately, it falls on us as consumers. In today’s capitalistic world, companies and businesses build around demand. As a society, we’ve grown far too accustom to how we purchase and consume products. Corporations are grappling to keep up with it, while neglecting the environmental effects it creates. Two weeks, two days, two hours.

Collectively, we all just need to be a bit more conscious. Putting that Amazon box in the recycling bin isn’t solving the problem. Shifting our habits can.

Aspiring entrepreneur & explorer.

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