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How Unethical is Next-Day Delivery?

How Unethical is Next-Day Delivery?
How Unethical is Next-Day Delivery?
May 10, 2022   //   

By Luke Winkie

The pandemic turned the US into a next-day delivery nation. Amazon, in particular, saw sales surge during the dark days of Covid. In the first three months of 2021, the company watched its total sales tick up by 44%, constituting $8.1bn in profit. Those sales were led by the 200 million subscribers to Amazon’s super-fast delivery service Prime as people demanded everything from desk chairs to bananas delivered the next day.

Amazon sold 44% more items during the pandemic, but the cost of fulfilling those orders increased by only 31%. This saving was one of scale – high-order volume allowed Amazon to operate even more efficiently. “It has run its warehouses closer to full capacity, and delivery drivers have made more stops on their routes, with less time driving between customers,” reported the New York Times.
During that period of lockdowns, Amazon’s quick delivery became a lifeline for many people. But as we approach a return to a more normal life, many of us are investigating the various habits and proclivities we unconsciously established during Covid. Do we want to go back to the office? Are we satisfied with our current employment situation? And is the endless cycle of cardboard arriving at our doorsteps putting an undue strain on the planet, on our infrastructure, and on the human spirit?
Amazon Prime ships about 1.6m packages a day. That operation is buoyed by a worldwide logistics team which rumbles all day and night. Isn’t that a little gluttonous? Or, as M Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International, put it in an interview with NPR: “You don’t need a pair of socks to get to you swiftly. It probably makes just as much sense to get it to you efficiently.”
For Amazon workers, this means working at an extraordinary pace. Jacob, who joined Amazon two years ago, says he has logged a total of 30,000 miles, and 400 routes. He is frequently saddled with shifts that force him to deliver to “70 separate three-story buildings” with more than 350 packages. “I was logging over 120 flights of stairs on my Fitbit,” he tells the Guardian.
“Amazon constantly reminds us they put profits over their workers,” he says. “I ended up having a normal 200-plus stop day on Easter Sunday. Zero mercy shown.”
The physical toll bears out in the data. According to a survey of workers in a Long Island Amazon warehouse, 42% reported physical pain in their day-to-day duties – usually in the feet and lower back. (They also noted psychological pressures and a deterioration of their normal sleep schedules.)
“I do feel like the workload is unreasonable,” says another driver interviewed by the Guardian, who asked to remain anonymous. “There is no time to break. It is impossible to complete a route, and take your breaks, and be back to the station in time.”

In the past eight years there have been hundreds of accidents involving Amazon vehicles, including at least six deaths, which were documented in BuzzFeed News investigation in 2019. But it is difficult to know the exact figures, given the way Amazon outsources its delivery apparatus to a worldwide network of companies. In total, BuzzFeed identified at least 250 outsourced dispatchers who work with Amazon.

In many cities Amazon is promising packages in as little as five hours, or tells customers they can order by midnight and receive products the next morning. Would more time to make deliveries lead to a more equitable work environment? Jacob says an earlier cutoff for next-day delivery orders could give Amazon employees more time to breathe, but he also isn’t sure if customers would accept having to wait longer. “The standard has been raised,” he says.

There are also questions about how sustainable this relentless pace is within the climate emergency. There are two differing philosophies about the emission impact of next-day delivery. Some argue that by streamlining the flow of products – bundling up all of our assorted consumption needs into parcels on a shared conveyor belt – we are taking the cars off the road that would previously be making routine trips to local strip malls. “The question is always, ‘What are we replacing?’” says Miguel Jaller, a professor at UC Davis and co-director of the Sustainable Freight Research program. “If you’re replacing a two-gallon-per-mile large SUV going every day to a store far away, then we’re benefiting the environment.”

Amazon has claimed it will reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 (and has already made some strides in that arena – they remain the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy). But given the sheer diversity of items available on Amazon and other e-commerce retailers, experts say it becomes more difficult to assert that next-day delivery streamlines the supply chain. The average Prime order might constitute radically different items, which are both guaranteed to make it to your doorstep in 24 hours or less. “It gets harder to consolidate,” Anne Goodchild, a professor of engineering at the University of Washington, told Vox. “I think it’s easy to overlook how much travel we’re adding.”

This is complicated further by Amazon’s reliance on contract labor, many of which use trucks that are considerably smaller than the giant 18-wheelers that haul fresh stock to bricks-and-mortar retailers, and generally carry a much heavier carbon footprint given their limited storage space. (In total, those vehicles are responsible for one0quarter of all carbon emissions in the transportation category.) In general, Jaller is unconvinced that the industry’s continued focus on speed above everything lends itself to a carbon-neutral model.
“They started pushing one-day delivery and then they started pushing one-hour delivery. The faster you’re providing a service, the less likely you’re able to be [environmentally] efficient,” he says.
Jaller does recommend a few remedies including a pivot to zero-emission vehicles. But generally speaking, experts believe that the path towards a sustainable, livable, non-exploitative future must begin with a shift in our social priorities.
“It’s not a massive chunk of your total environmental impact, but every decision a consumer makes has some impact,” says Austin Whitman, CEO of the non-profit Climate Neutral, when I asked him if he believes next-day delivery can coexist within the ethical posture of any conscious shopper. “Should you put it on your list of the top 10 things to avoid? Absolutely.”
Kai Lendwehr, the press officer of the environmental non-profit MyClimate, agrees. He advocates for a reorientation in the relentless parameters of consumption. Instead of searching for a supply-chain apparatus that sustainably satiates our demands, maybe we simply need to be wondering if we truly need the things we’re purchasing in the first place.
“It’s about conscious buying,” he says. “Decide what you need, do some research, focus on quality, on things that make you feel suitable for a longer timeframe, and then click the green button. It shouldn’t really matter when the product arrives.”