Having recently welcomed my 3rd child into the world, it causes me to be thinking a lot about the future. I like to think the majority of people these days are conscious enough to consider what kind of planet we’ll leave to the generations that come after us.
While e-commerce is omnipresent in today’s world, it’s still a relatively young industry in the grand scheme of things. The impact that it will have on the world remains very much to be determined.
There are so many data points to consider when unpacking what sorts of changes e-commerce is making to our society. Thus far, I haven’t come down concretely on any particular side of these debates, but I do think we should be having active and ongoing conversations about them.
1. E-Commerce and Cardboard
Raise your hand if there is at least one Amazon box sitting in your house right now. As I write this, I’m staring at a stack of them, waiting to be broken down and taken out to the recycling can.
We must be creating and consuming more cardboard today than ever before in human history. Or are we? According to the Fibre Box Association (FBA), the amount of cardboard shipped to consumers by U.S. companies has actually decreased since 1995.
This is likely because some companies are finding new packaging options. Others are reducing costs by reducing the size of boxes they use to ship items.
Shipping directly to customers also removes the need to ship giant cardboard containers to retail stores. But that also means the majority of the responsibility for recycling that cardboard has moved from commercial to curbside.
While a robust amount of the cardboard moving around the world each year goes to recycling facilities, a good bit still does not. It seems the more we receive things directly, the less we recycling.
Perhaps this lapse is a combination of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of all those boxes and being unsure about which bits are actually recyclable. Either way, over 317,000 metric tons of cardboard wind up in landfills across the U.S. each year.
What we do recycle, though, has boosted the revenues of both the recycling and paper industry significantly. The innate value of cardboard—which can be recycled up to five to seven times before it loses its ability to hold structure—has driven many recycling vendors to prioritize its processing. It has also prompted multiple pulp mills to switch from producing newsprint and paper to focusing on linerboard and corrugated medium.
As an industry, we should always be looking for ways to continue to reduce our environmental impact, so what does that look like going forward? More compact boxes? A focus on using only recyclable labels? Paper tape as the standard? We know cardboard can have consequences, so how do we mitigate them?
2. E-Commerce Is Changing Transportation
The rise of e-commerce has shaken up the world of transportation as well. Both the type and volume of trucks on the road has shifted. While long-haul traffic was steadily increasing before the e-commerce boom, there are now significantly more smaller trucks doing shorter runs.
On its face, that could be a good thing, right? More trucks means more drivers employed, after all. Distribution networks have increased significantly, and freight is benefitting from it.
When the industry took a hit from reduced commercial demand, e-commerce stepped in to fill the gap. These shorter routes should equal fewer overall emissions, but will this put more engines on the road producing pollutants and using up natural resources?
And what about the jump in commercial traffic in dense urban areas? Deliveries that a courier service may have once handled easily have increased so dramatically in volume that trucks have been brought in by necessity. At the same time, urban planners are also exploring if online shopping could reduce the need for dedicated personal transportation in city centers, thereby seriously reducing the number of cars on the road.
Air freight is another dynamic of transportation to consider. With customers now routinely demanding same day or next day delivery, the number of packages moving via air has increased significantly.
Jet fuel is a major pollutant, and moving more things by air changes airport operations needs. From these changes come growing pains and increased traffic, but also work opportunities.
How do we move forward with regards to transportation? How do we find a way to satisfy the consumer’s demand for nearly instant gratification without doing irreparable harm to the environment or changing the character of our major cities?
3. E-Commerce Is Impacting Employment
Ever wonder how our work is impacting employment trends? Here’s an update for you: Unemployment rates are at an all-time low, while e-commerce volume continues to climb. This mismatch has caused some labor shortages, and many companies are choosing to diversify their employee pool by incorporating unique levels of flexibility into their operations.
Employing people with disabilities (PWD) has been an overlooked avenue of workforce development in corporate environments. The unemployment rate of PWD is a staggering 80 percent. However, studies have shown that once hired, PWD have significantly lower rates of turnover and absenteeism.
Many jobs in the e-commerce world are well-suited to PWD and their unique skill sets. The contained environment of a distribution or fulfillment center allows for those in wheelchairs, those with hearing or vision impairments, or those with learning disabilities to navigate their work in an environment that sets them up for success.
Many retailers are choosing to partner with nonprofits or other 3PL providers with a focus on employing PWD and finding that consumers are encouraged by it. Customers are eager to support a brand that prioritizes making employment accessible to a group of workers who previously struggled with so many barriers to entry.
While working in a warehouse might not be ideal for everyone, e-commerce is also blazing the trail in ways that allow more people to work from home. Whether it’s a stay-at-home parent, a military spouse, or someone with physical disabilities that make it impossible for them to work outside their home, the opportunity to work—even part-time—and bring home an income can change a person’s life.
This couldn’t happen in a brick and mortar world. These pockets of flexible employment opportunities are opening the industry up to niche segments of workers that may not be able to do a full time or on-site job but, given the right parameters and tools, are able to excel to the benefit of both themselves and the company.
4. E-Commerce and Automation
Following in step with employment is a chain reaction in e-commerce order volume: It’s gone through the roof. Warehousing and distribution are experiencing increased demand beyond the normal pick-and-pack process.
This increased demand obviously requires more people, but unemployment is at a low, and there simply aren’t enough people to meet the demand. Therefore, providers are looking to robots to fill that gap.
The word “automation” strikes fear into the hearts of many people. The idea that you might lose your job to a machine is real and valid for hundreds of thousands of laborers the world over.
But it’s becoming clearer that automation is the future, and e-commerce is paving the way for it. We have both a responsibility and an opportunity to shape how it interacts with society.
The fears about robots sending everyone to the unemployment office are, thus far, mostly unfounded. In fact, the reality has been quite the opposite. Automation is actually creating jobs.
There will, of course, be a massive need for engineers and computer scientists going forward. However, there will be just as great a need for technicians to service and manage these new fleets. And while the retail sector has taken, and will likely continue to take, a massive hit in the wake of e-commerce’s ascent, the question for us is this: Are we creating enough jobs to offset those that are vanishing from brick and mortar shops?
The technology aspect of automation—and the general turn towards a more digital economy—also brings its own anxieties. People with limited computer knowledge and skills are finding themselves slowly but surely shut out of the workforce. Our industry has the chance, and the incentive, to offer specialized training to help close that gap.
This wave of automation could also be a chance to help retrain those skilled workers whose industries are collapsing. How much difference exists between the worker who is able run an automated system in a coal mine and one who can run a similar system in a retail warehouse? There will be valid, well-paying career paths that suit a variety of people—they just need to be trained.
Where Do We Go Now?
I know this is a lot to digest. However, as an industry, I strongly believe we need to be more curious about these sorts of questions. We need to take a proactive approach to understand how e-commerce is impacting society and the environment.
It’s time for us all to have a moment of introspection. I’ll be transparent and say that I don’t have the answers here, but the issues above are things I wonder about all the time. What do we think will come of all this in the next 25 to 50 years? I welcome your dialogue in the comments.
This article first appeared on linkedin.com on February 13, 2019