Not so easy
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
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.
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.
- More information about the study is available (in Swedish) in Supply Chain Effect, No. 4.