Relearning Patience: How Speed and Convenience Contribute to Climate Change

Since the industrial revolution, the pace of American life has increased dramatically. And while higher speeds have led to many sources of progress in the American economy, they have also led to impatience, an impatience that shines brightest in the online marketplace, and one that proves costly for the environment.

According to United States Census data, e-commerce rates—or the percentage of overall shopping conducted via the internet—have risen from roughly 5% in 2012 to 13% in 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic catalyzed the largest portion of this increase, as anxieties and mandates caused Americans to make online purchases 32% more in 2020 than in the previous year. And though the e-commerce rate has steadied since its 2020 spike, the data highlights a trend pointing towards a continuing rise in online shopping.

For smaller businesses, the pandemic and the increase in e-commerce conflated to deal a nasty, sometimes fatal, blow. These were the stores run by locals—the moms and pops—and were businesses that more often dealt in sustainable products. Locally-sourced produce, handmade clothing, the list goes on. Some of these businesses were able to adapt to online shopping, allowing them to make it through the pandemic relatively unscathed. But for others, entering the e-commerce sphere proved too difficult, and their businesses suffered.

The companies that benefited the most from the pandemic were the mega-corporations. Already dominating the marketplace prior to Covid-19, companies like Amazon rose to new heights as people worried about leaving their homes. Many independent retailers find it necessary to sell through Amazon in order to spread awareness of their products. This, along with Amazon’s massive wealth of warehoused products, has led Americans to do about 50% of their online shopping through the one mega-corp. And as if third-party retailers weren’t already operating from a deficit, the percentage of each sale that Amazon takes continues to increase with each year, rising from 19% in 2014 to 30% in 2019. With more people shopping online, and more sources of revenue, Amazon continuously benefits the positive feedback loop shown below:

As Amazon continues to grow and stifle competition, the company’s shopping experience becomes more and more convenient for consumers. Virtually any product can be placed in the same cart and can be purchased at the same time. And then there’s the kicker: speed. Two-day, one-day, and sometimes even same-day delivery have become Amazon’s trump cards over other retailers. Unfortunately, extreme convenience and lightning-fast delivery come with costs not included in an Amazon Prime subscription.

The electricity needed to power all of Amazon’s warehouses, and the transportation needed to deliver all of its packages produce untold emissions. In 2020, Amazon committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2040—a seemingly laudable goal. Yet, in the two years since making this pledge, the company has maintained a close relationship with fossil fuel companies, even streamlining their collaboration through Amazon’s AWS platform. And here lies a central contradiction.

In 2017, CDP, a non-profit organization dedicated to disclosing the environmental impacts of companies across the globe, published its Carbon Majors Report with the headline: “100 fossil fuel producers and nearly 1 trillion tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” The report detailed the concentration of emissions within the fossil fuel industry. While this may come as little surprise, the actual numbers are staggering. As of its publication, just 25 fossil fuel companies were responsible for 51% of worldwide GHG emissions, with 71% of the total stemming from the 100 companies in question. With scientists and activists constantly sounding the alarm on climate change and its correlation with emissions, Amazon’s sustained connection with the fossil fuel industry is a step in the wrong direction and seems counterproductive to the company’s 2040 net-zero goal.

But for many large companies like Amazon, net-zero emissions goals are often a form of what is called “greenwashing”. Greenwashing is an advertising device that companies employ to convince their customers of the companies’ commitment to being environmentally friendly. Companies use the term “net-zero” even when they still pollute heavily with little plan to stop; they feign genuine net-zero emissions totals for their customers by resorting to carbon credits, which do not actually cut their GHG production.

Carbon credits are certificates or permits that dictate a certain quantity of carbon emissions that the seller will effectively siphon out of the atmosphere in exchange for financial compensation. One example of a carbon capture service a seller may employ is that of fostering more effective carbon sinks by letting forests grow longer. Alternatively, carbon credit compensation may help fund more sustainable agricultural practices or the like. However, these carbon credits operate more as a bandage for polluting companies. These companies still bleed emissions, but now some of the blood gets absorbed by the bandage. These bandages can’t stop the bleeding, however. Only the body, or the company itself, can cure the wound by cutting down on the source of injury: the polluting behavior.

It would be surprising if Amazon could achieve its energy needs without a reliance on conventional energy for two reasons: 1) Renewable energy storage is still in early development for the most part, and 2) There is simply not enough green energy to power Amazon’s daily operations. But that begs the question: is Amazon’s master formula of speed and convenience worth the environmental burden, or is it time to collectively embrace a slower economy that will mitigate anthropogenic climate change?

For many, sacrificing the Amazon lifestyle would be too undesirable, even considering the consequences. And as people continue to shop with Amazon, the corporation receives more capital with which to improve the speed and convenience of their operations. This feedback loop will only make it more difficult to delete one’s membership.

For those willing to make a change, shopping locally when possible and supporting companies that produce and sell their goods sustainably are two practices that can help mitigate polluting behavior. This shift does require individuals to relearn the patience companies like Amazon sapped away. The future impacts of climate change are not set in stone, but without reassessing our priorities, we will only grow more impatient as a consumptive society, devoting more of our money to expedited, online shopping, and further damaging the environment as a result.


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