A new study: Barriers to climate-friendly e-commerce

The retailers want it, so do the distributors. And the consumers also say that they want it. Even so, the introduction of climate-friendly deliveries for e-commerce is proceeding extremely slowly. A new research study from LiU analyses the barriers that hinder development.

Uni Sallnäs. "So far we are talking about climate-smart transports, but in the future we should expand the concept to 'sustainable transports'", says Uni Sallnäs. Photo credit: Mikael Sönne

Not so easy

Screen shot.A lot of alternatives. Which one is the best?

So – why is it so difficult? This was the question Uni Sallnäs, docent in the Division for Logistics and Quality Management, asked herself a few years ago when ordering items over the internet and discovered that she couldn’t find any climate-friendly shipping methods. The question was also the starting point of the Vinnova Project Sustainable distribution in e-commerce: How to facilitate climate-smart deliveries, which is now starting to deliver its first results.

In the first of three subprojects, the researchers have looked at three e-commerce companies (two of which are Stadium and Apotek Hjärtat) in order to examine from the point of view of the companies what is hindering development. They have identified several barriers to the introduction of such shipping alternatives, described in the Brief Facts box below.

“As a consumer, I thought it would be simple, but as a researcher I have realised that it is actually pretty complex. And it’s much more complex that we thought when we started,” says Uni Sallnäs, and goes on to give an example.

“It appears to be fairly simple to put the climate-friendly alternative at the top of the list at the checkout, but this would affect the number of orders received by different suppliers, and thus the competition relationships between them. So what appears to be a simple measure has consequences in other stages of the chain of supply.”

Just a minority

Portrait of Uni Sallnäs.Uni Sallnäs. Photo credit: Karin Midner

A summary presented in the study shows that only 10 of the 55 e-tailers examined offered one or more climate-friendly shipping alternatives. And this is the case despite all the discussion about sustainability, and several investigations showing that consumers request such alternatives (but are not always prepared to pay extra for them).

What often hinders the development are what are known as marketing barriers, both in the relationship between e-tailers and distributors, and in the relationship between the e-tailers and consumers.

“In both cases, credibility is a key factor. The e-tailers find it difficult to assess the various alternatives offered by the distributors, while it is just as difficult for consumers to assess the e-tailers. Concepts are easily confused here, and no one wants to be accused or greenwashing,” says Uni Sallnäs.

Next year

One way to increase the speed of development would be to agree on the definition of “climate-friendly shipping”, while another is to introduce new technical solutions to calculate the impact on the climate of individual orders. The ideal, in Uni Sallnäs’ opinion, would be to have the most climate-friendly shipping alternative placed at the top, preselected as default, and accompanied by a calculation of the climate impact of the order.

“With respect to an agreed definition, work is under way both concerning the Nordic Swan eco-label and what the industry has termed ‘fossil-free delivery’. Both labels will probably come into use for deliveries as early as next year.”

And while we're waiting? How should consumers think?

“One rule of thumb is to choose slightly slower delivery options. It's not always the case, but the impact on the climate is often greater for faster delivery methods. Then, of course, you can always think through whether you really need this item, and the transport methods you use to collect the goods yourself. This may be more important than the actions of the distributor.”

Uni Sallnäs also emphasises that the term “climate-friendly transportation” should be extended to “sustainable transportation”. This would include more environmental aspects than simply carbon dioxide emissions, such as the social conditions of, for example, drivers.

The two other subprojects will examine customers’ purchasing histories at e-pharmacies and the opportunities and challenges faced by distributors. The project will end in June 2023.

Brief facts: Seven barriers Show/Hide content

Some of the barriers that the researchers
have identified in the study are listed here.

  • Low priority given to sustainability issues
    Sustainability remains low in the list of priorities at many companies.
  • Expertise linked to one or a few specific people
    The work is often given impetus by individuals who are passionate about the issue. The expertise they hold may disappear from the company if they leave.
  • Difficulty in verifying climate-directed action by logistics companies
    Several transport alternatives are currently offered under different names.
  • Technical limitations
    Solutions are not available to calculate emissions from individual orders or packages.
  • Terminology confusion
    Many different terms are used, and it’s not even clear what the term “climate-friendly” means.
  • External parties
    These can be both barriers and enablers. E-tailers disagree about the need for legislation and regulation.
  • Difficulty in communication
    It is difficult to communicate complex sustainability perspectives in a simple and credible manner.

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