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Super-Fast Shipping Comes With High Environmental Costs

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Black Friday may be over, but there's still a lot of Cyber Monday left. And companies like Amazon and Walmart are touting free two-day shipping to entice you to click buy on that must-have item.

M SANJAYAN: The problem with that is that it does not allow for the most efficient method to be used to ship those goods to us.

CORNISH: That's M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International. He studied the environmental effects of super-fast shipping with the University of California.

SANJAYAN: While online shopping does have a smaller carbon footprint than traditional retail shopping, it's only really better for the environment if you don't get rush delivery.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Sanjayan says trucks from online retailers may go out less than full to get you your products more quickly. But it can increase harmful emissions. And another aspect of online shopping, returned items, has the same effect.

SANJAYAN: We generally think online shopping is better for the environment because it saves you from driving around, trying to find a place to get things and all of that. That only works if you're not constantly returning things. So if you are a kind of person that buys a lot of things, tries them all out, then does multiple returns, then it's really not going to actually be better for the planet.

KELLY: Still, with a little patience, we can get the goods we love and try to help keep the environment cleaner.

SANJAYAN: By basically checking the take your time and deliver this to me in the best method possible would mean that the trucks are going to be filled to the brim with goods when they're being sent, and the company's going to use the most efficient way to get it there.

CORNISH: Some companies say that their big warehouses, called fulfillment centers, are located near their customers, thus cutting down on long-haul trucking. But Sanjayan says that's just shifting the problem.

SANJAYAN: The vast majority of stuff is still getting from Point A to Point B. It still has to get to those fulfillment centers.

CORNISH: A Walmart representative told us the company does a number of things to reduce its carbon footprint, like asking people to bundle their purchases and pick them up at stores. But Sanjayan also thinks companies can be more upfront when telling you there could be a greener way to ship your goods.

SANJAYAN: Wouldn't it be fantastic if there was a green button that when you go and shop online, whether you're shopping at Amazon or Walmart or any other store, you press that green button, and it assures you maximum efficiency within some reasonable period? So it says, within five days, we'll get this to you in the most efficient means possible. It would be even better if that green button also took some of those savings that the company is now seeing because they don't have to pay high shipping costs, and that savings is put back into the environment.

KELLY: And he says people can go even farther.

SANJAYAN: You don't need a pair of socks to get to you swiftly. It probably makes just as as much sense to get it to you efficiently.

KELLY: M. Sanjayan. He studied the environmental effects of super-fast shipping with the University of California.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.