The societal damage of online shopping

Sustainable Transformation

Alex.pngYear on year, we are ordering more and more stuff online. All those packages are starting to create quite a bit of nuisance, whether in residential districts, in offices or on the roads. The extent of the problem is such that people are now suggesting rules should be imposed to limit the damage e-commerce is doing to our society. 


"We need to get away from the idea that transportation doesn’t cost anything. In reality the environment pays a huge price for it."

If you order a new smartphone online with Coolblue or Vanden Borre it can be delivered to your home the same day. In Ghent, Zalando collects clothing or footwear which does not fit from your home for free, and bol.com even calls on Saturdays. If you are not home when the courier comes to your door, then the neighbors can always accept your package. Or you might want to play safe and get your package delivered to the office. Handy, right?

64 per cent of Belgians

It certainly is for shoppers, but looking at the bigger picture, those thousands of packages are starting to cause a nuisance. Meanwhile, online sales keep on increasing year-on-year. According to new figures released by Comeos, the federation for trade and services, last year approximately 64 per cent of Belgians made an online purchase 

The problem is that 20 per cent of the people order 80 per cent of the packages. If you live next to someone who orders a lot, couriers can ring your bell any time. Moreover, online sales are not spread evenly over the year: e-commerce peaks primarily start in the weeks before Sinterklaas and continue until right after the New Year celebrations.

‘We do not accept packages for neighbors’

If you are at home during the day in that period in a neighborhood where many online shoppers live, the chances are that the couriers will be constantly ringing your bell. For them, this is an easier solution than returning items to the depot. And whilst most retired couples or homeworking mothers don’t mind accepting a delivery once in a while for a neighbor who is at work, once they start to flood in, those packages become a big pain. Unsurprisingly, we are now seeing signs going up saying: ‘We do not accept packages for neighbors.’ Also, in some neighborhoods people are setting up informal networks of people who accept packages for each other.

30 per cent at work

A recent iVox survey commissioned by the technology company Bring Me showed that 30 per cent of Belgian e-consumers get their online purchases delivered to their work address 

33 per cent of those packages are received by the buyers themselves and 37 per cent by a receptionist. If one arrives now and then, no one will mind. If it becomes a habit, then employers may need to intervene. Big companies in particular more often establish formal rules on such matters. Sometimes the subject even gets raised on the management committee agenda. Trade unions are mostly of the opinion that everyone should get the same advantages: If some are allowed to accept private orders, then the same should apply to everyone.

This is not always straightforward, however. Office workers often have a mailbox in which their orders can be dropped off, but manual laborers do not have such a facility. Some companies invest for example in safe boxes in which couriers can leave staff deliveries. 

Double the traffic  

Some shoppers get their packages delivered to one of the local pick-up points that are increasingly being used by e-traders. Hence you can pick up or return orders from bol.com to a branch of Albert Heijn, Zalando deliver to Bpost’s PostPoints and hemadeliver to UPS Access Point (formerly known as Kiala points). However, even there the growing stream of packages is becoming problematic. As e-commerce increases, perhaps such pick-up points will start to demand better terms and a higher fee.  

Getting things delivered to a local collection point is not the most ecological choice either. This means  a double stream of cars on the road will emerge: delivery vans taking the packages to collection points and then passenger vehicles going to collect them again. In the Netherlands, it is fashionable to drive from pick-up point to pick-up point to collect all the online orders. That phenomenon also starts with us.

Thus, it is clear that there is a lot of work to do on the e-store and more and more online merchants are becoming aware of this. Just as you now can choose from a whole range of payment methods, in the future you will also be able to determine where and how you want your package to be delivered.

There’s no such thing as free transport  

The number of delivery vans going to deliver all those packages every day will keep on increasing. Today, there are already 700,000 such vans on the Belgian roads. According to the Federal Plan office, this number will almost double by the time we reach 2030. The transported volume stays about the same, but the goods will be spread over more and more deliveries. In the past, electronics stores used to deliver their washing machines, dry cleaners and deep freezers perhaps once or twice a week to a specific neighborhood. Now some promise that you will have your order delivered to your house within just a few hours time. However, they will not be able to keep to these schedules over the long term. 

In the logistics sector, some serious thought is being given to new ways to transport as many objects together as possible. We should put the streams that will eventually end up at the same delivery point together as early as possible on the same route, and then search for streams that connect for the return route.

Carpooling for goods

Consequently, we might see 30 to 50 per cent of the goods transport disappear from our roads. But this would mean entirely redefining the existing earnings models in the transport sector and companies would need to be prepared to carpool. The first pioneers are already bringing that into practice.

Finally, we need to get away from the idea that transportation doesn’t cost anything. Today that is the message that the e-commerce constantly gives us. Novels, pumps, a tablet, a box of Playmobil: everything gets delivered for free. At least, if we spend enough. But that isn’t necessarily a problem: if the item we order does not cost enough to qualify for free shipping, then we just add something else to our virtual shopping cart. On top of that, returns are also free. People often abuse that. They buy three pairs of shoes, knowing that they will send two of them back. “It doesn’t cost anything”, they think. In reality the environment pays a huge price for it.

Charge more for delivery

Conclusion: E-traders will need to charge more for delivery. Maybe the first few who dare to do this will find they experience negative repercussions. However, if we want to keep the damage that e-commerce is doing to our society under control, such rules will be necessary.

This article was published in Knack (Dutch).

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