Editorial Feature

Evaluating the Carbon Footprint of Various E-Commerce Shipping Options

The online shopping platforms provide numerous shipping options to their consumers. The faster delivery, most sought after by the consumers, however, might be detrimental to the environment. This article evaluates the carbon footprint of the shipping options provided by Taobao, a famous Chinese online shopping website. The results were published in Transportation Research Record.

delivery, parcel, environmental effects

Image Credit: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock.com

The ever-booming e-commerce industry has brought many changes and these online shopping platforms compete in enhancing their operations and offer quality services to their customers. These platforms provide the consumer with many shipping or delivery options to be relevant in a hyper-competitive environment.

The choice to choose faster and convenient shipping alternatives might facilitate unsustainable consumption. It was noted in one study that 47% of online shoppers paid more to get their orders sooner despite no immediate requirement. This scenario of seeking faster delivery shortens the delivery lead time resulting in carbon-intensive delivery trips.

This article analyzes the following:

  1. The estimated carbon footprint of different cross-border e-commerce shipping options
  2. The influence of carbon labeling on consumers’ cross-border shipping preferences.

The study analyzes Taobao’s (a famous e-commerce platform for cross-border purchasing in Asia) relative carbon emissions of shipping options. Depending on the estimated emissions, a stated choice (SC) survey is later designed to comprehend the reaction of online shoppers to carbon labeling.

As certain consumers are concerned about sustainability, informing about the carbon impact of different shipping options along with the delivery time and cost is beneficial.

Literature Review and Approach

Consumers can purchase from both international and local sellers, boosting both domestic and cross-border delivery operations globally. Cross-border deliveries are mostly items imported from other countries, and earlier consumers avoided such purchases due to longer delivery time and higher shipping costs.

However, cross-border purchases are popular and have continued to gain massive popularity in recent years, leading to the need for more research to comprehend the environmental implications.

However, there is limited research on the comparative environmental impacts of various shipping options provided by e-commerce platforms. Cross-border deliveries are highly carbon-intensive owing to their longer and more complex supply chain operation.

A survey conducted on the perception of e-commerce and its effect on the environment showed that 64% of people surveyed showed a willingness to wait for an order with greener logistics operations and 25% of them were willing to pay for greener shipping. Another research showed that an annual savings of 79,000 kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) are possible if carbon labeling were made obtainable on travel booking websites.

A study identified that consumers’ preferences are mostly driven by the shipping cost, delivery speed, and other non-cost attributes. Some studies also identified that delivery time had an effect on customer satisfaction.

Delivery time is one of the major inhibitors among e-commerce shoppers says another research. Other works also indicated the influence of order value (the amount of money that a consumer spends in every online transaction). Another study also found that the order value was less for cases where unconditional free shipping is provided.

The ability to select a carrier, availability of order tracking services, delivery time slot, and delivery date were also considered in other research works but excluded in the current study.

Case Study

The prime objective of the study was to carry out a comparative assessment of the various e-commerce shipping options for cross-border purchases. The study analyzes the delivery time, carbon footprint, and shipping cost. Taobao, the online shopping platform based out of China, was selected as a representation.

The consumers of Taobao are offered many options to customize their shipping options. The current case study into Taobao is an analysis of the parcel delivery operations from China to Singapore.

Carbon Footprint Assessment

Methodology

The logistics process in a multiple-order transaction is listed in various stages (A–E) to enable the assessment of each shipping option (see Figure 1). The stages were:

  1. Long-haul truck transport inside China
  2. Cross-border transport
  3. Warehouse operations
  4. Last-mile delivery van transport inside Singapore
  5. Consumer’s passenger trip to a CP 

Cross-border logistics process for each shipping option.

Figure 1. Cross-border logistics process for each shipping option. Image Credit: Cheah and Huang, 2021 

In the case of freight transport segments (stages A, B, D), the carbon footprint with respect to the carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions (kg CO2e) was evaluated based on the ECTA guidelines. The location of the supplier was selected randomly and marked as the New Cross-Border E-Commerce Zones (see Figure 2).

 Map showing Singapore and Guangzhou, the main departure city from China, and assumed supplier locations in China as grey dots.

Figure 2. Map showing Singapore and Guangzhou, the main departure city from China, and assumed supplier locations in China as grey dots. Image Credit: Cheah and Huang, 2021 

Table 1 lists the carbon emission factors for various modes of transportation. 

Table 1. Carbon Emission Factors for Various Transport Modes. Source: Cheah and Huang, 2021

Carbon Emission Factors for Various Transport Modes.

In case of the last-mile delivery to the consumer’s place or CP (stages D and E), conventional diesel delivery vans are presumed to be utilized. The study also took in the delivery failures resulting in repeated and multiple delivery attempts. The carbon emissions for warehouse operations (stage C) were also taken into consideration. 

Results

Table 2 compares the effect of various shipping options for different scenarios of online orders.

Table 2. Scenarios of Shipping-Related Options Selected on Taobao and the Estimated Impacts. Source: Cheah and Huang, 2021 

Scenarios of Shipping-Related Options Selected on Taobao and the Estimated Impacts.

The International Post Corporation (IPC) states that cross-border e-commerce deliveries weighed between 0.2 kg and 2 kg. It was seen that the “sea-home” shipment option is the least carbon-intensive option available for a single-order scenario and the “sea-consolidated-home” shipment option is apt for a multiple-order scenario. 

The carbon footprint breakdown shown in Figure 3 (stages A–E) depicts that carbon emissions are highly sensitive to air or sea shipment for cross-border transport (stage B). 

Carbon footprint compared for different shipment options for the two-order scenario.

Figure 3. Carbon footprint compared for different shipment options for the two-order scenario. Image Credit: Cheah and Huang, 2021 

It was noted that the emissions in the air are 65 times higher from sea shipping.

In last-mile delivery (stages D and E) analysis it was seen that the whole emissions produced for home delivery are higher than delivery to a CP by only 0.012 kg CO2e (see Figure 4). 

Carbon emissions associated with last-mile delivery per parcel.

Figure 4. Carbon emissions associated with last-mile delivery per parcel. Image Credit: Cheah and Huang, 2021 

Shipping Choice Experiment

Methodology

A shipping choice survey was performed to examine the consumers’ interest to wait for their orders and also their willingness to pay higher for a less carbon-intensive option. The study considered a single-order transaction with doorstep or home delivery as the preferred delivery destination. They had 12 scenarios and the complete factorial design of each scenario is detailed in Table 3. 

Table 3. Full Factorial Design of the Scenarios. Source: Cheah and Huang, 2021

Full Factorial Design of the Scenarios.

Figure 5 illustrates the options provided in the survey. 

Choice options for: (a) scenario 7 (without carbon information), and (b) scenario 8 (with carbon information).

Figure 5. Choice options for: (a) scenario 7 (without carbon information), and (b) scenario 8 (with carbon information). Image Credit: Cheah and Huang, 2021

Results

The online survey was done in Singapore from June to July 2020 with Singapore residents having experience in making cross-border Internet purchases. Figure 6 shows the demographic and online purchasing profiles of respondents. 

Profile of survey respondents (n = 188).

Figure 6. Profile of survey respondents (n = 188). Image Credit: Cheah and Huang, 2021 

The possible options and the respondents opting for these options in the three contexts are shown in Table 4. 

Table 4. Summary of the Options Selected by Survey Respondents. Source: Cheah and Huang, 2021 

Summary of the Options Selected by Survey Respondents.

As shipping costs are a dominant decision factor, it is expected that the respondents would choose cheaper alternatives. The survey observed consumers of various behavior types and Table 5 outlines the number of respondents belonging to each archetype.

Table 5. Summary of Discovered Consumer Archetypes and Number of Respondents (Percentage of Respondents in Brackets). Source: Cheah and Huang, 2021 

Summary of Discovered Consumer Archetypes and Number of Respondents (Percentage of Respondents in Brackets).

The observations offer insight into the general distribution of the minority and top consumer archetypes. It was also seen that there was a willingness to wait using greener shipping. 

Conclusion

The current research is an assessment of the carbon footprint of cross-border shipping options of the e-commerce industry. The carbon footprint assessment showed that carbon emissions for e-commerce cross-border orders ranged from 0.67–7.49 kgCO2e per parcel shipped. 

The shipping choice experiment showed that most of the respondents were willing to wait for greener shipping. It is also vital to consider the economic impact of these lower-carbon shipping initiatives. 

Journal Reference:

Cheah, L & Huang, Q (2021) Comparative Carbon Footprint Assessment of Cross-Border E-Commerce Shipping Options. Transportation Research Record. Available online: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/03611981211037249.

References and Further Reading

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Laura Thomson

Written by

Laura Thomson

Laura Thomson graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with an English and Sociology degree. During her studies, Laura worked as a Proofreader and went on to do this full time until moving on to work as a Website Editor for a leading analytics and media company. In her spare time, Laura enjoys reading a range of books and writing historical fiction. She also loves to see new places in the world and spends many weekends looking after dogs.

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