Would You Pay More for Slower Shipping to Help the Planet? Amazon Thinks So

Need a reason to feel better about ordering from Amazon instead of driving to the mall? Amazon aims to offer the ultimate in green shipping options so even though your item is coming from a regional distribution center rather than down the street, you can mitigate the environmental impact of not buying local.

On October 12, Amazon succeeded in securing a patent for “environmentally conscious electronic transations.”  The patent forecasts a retail check out system where consumers can view the environmental impact of each item for sale, and can choose more than one eco-friendly option for how they have their purchases shipped.
Environmental impact of an item would be calculated using several criteria, including, “the amount of recycled and recyclable material, potential landfill volume, carbon footprint resulting from manufacture, delivery impact from the manufacturer to a storage location, and operational impact.” After examining each product on Amazon for its environmental impact, customers can then specify whether their purchase is shipped using a company with low-emission vehicles, one who combines deliveries and uses fewer routes with, more stops (taking longer), a company who only travels at night, or one who skirts large cities to avoid heavy traffic and minimize its impact on air quality.

Amazon has already been working on improving their packaging and shipping options. It has migrated from hard plastic clamshell packaging with an abundance of plastic ties toward “frustration-free” packaging, and offers free analysis to other companies on how to do the same.

Since 2007, Amazon has also worked to reduce excess packaging materials, to more closely match items to the correct box size, and has started to introduce recyclable packaging materials. With its Packaging Feedback program, customers can give Amazon feedback on their item’s packaging and send pictures. Amazon then uses the feedback to keep making improvements. This new patent goes further, offering customers the option of combining multiple orders in one box, reducing the amount of packaging in their order even further, or selecting packaging made from tree farms created for this purpose.

Does this mean that Amazon will eventually do away with the option for customers to have their shipments arrive faster in multiple boxes? Maybe, maybe not. If it remains, Amazon could offer customers the option to purchase carbon offsets to assuage their guilt over their impatience.

The ideas related to this patent are planned for the future, but how likely are they to come about at all? Will customers actually pour over each item’s environmental transparency score? Will that change buying patterns?

If Amazon really posted environmental impact information for every one of its millions of items for sale, it would certainly put the pressure on companies to rethink the materials they use and their outsourcing operations decisions in order to lower their products’ environmental impact score. On the flip side, if they implemented their environmental shipping choices, it would open the floodgates for innovative shipping companies to offer low-impact shipping options, and that’s good not only for Amazon, but other industries that rely on heavily on long-distance distribution.

However, maybe Amazon will never utilize this ambitious patent at all. With the growing popularity of ebooks, Amazon’s future shipping needs might diminish substantially on their own.

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.