Who Bears Responsibility for the Environmental Impact of Online Shopping?

Etsy is becoming the first global e-commerce company to completely offset carbon emissions from shipping.

Within seven walking minutes from my Toronto home, there are four grocery stores, three drug stores and at least a dozen corner stores selling everything from plants to peanut butter. And yet, when I need to restock on toilet paper, I turn to Amazon—where a host of other site-recommended cleaning products, books and gadgets usually find their way into my shopping cart.

I’ve managed to convince myself that the delivery packaging itself is not wasteful: cardboard boxes are an excellent vessel for holding, transporting and dumping other recyclable items. There is, however, an environmental impact of our culture of convenient consumption that I hadn’t considered: shipping emissions.

Transport has overtaken electricity as the #1 offender in terms of carbon emissions, and the e-commerce norm of fast, free shipping is a massive contributor. Etsy—the global marketplace where you can shop pet portraits, handknit scarves and mid-century sofas—is the first e-commerce company to do something about it, pledging to completely offset the carbon emissions from shipping their products.

“Now, each time someone buys an item on Etsy, we will automatically purchase verified emissions reductions, more commonly known as “offsets”, through our partner 3Degrees,” the company’s CEO, Josh Silverman, wrote in an Etsy blog post. “These purchases support environmental projects, including protecting forests that improve air quality and absorb carbon, sponsoring wind and solar farms that generate clean energy and replace fossil fuels, and developing greener methods for producing auto parts.”

This initiative comes at no additional cost to buyers or sellers — and a seemingly marginal cost for Etsy. “Considering these offsets will cost less than one penny per package for Etsy,” Silverman continues, “we don’t believe that cost should be a prohibitive factor for others to follow in our footsteps.” But those pennies add up. For Amazon, who reported that 5 billion items were shipped through its Prime program in 2017, a similar promise would cost close to $50 million. That said, the company did hit a $1 trillion valuation last year. It’s all about perspective.

And here’s a piece I’d like to share: every day approximately 55,000 metric tons of CO2 are emitted into the atmosphere by online package deliveries in the United States alone. To jumpstart their efforts, Etsy is offsetting shipping emissions for the entire US e-commerce sector on February 28. Offsetting this impact for one day is the equivalent of protecting 260 square km of forests for one year—or, a forest that’s over twice the size of Vancouver. I’ll remember that the next time I’m too lazy to cross the street for a roll of toilet paper.

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