- Online shopping and E-commerce are surging due to shifts in consumer behavior during the pandemic and the ease of mobile devices.
- Enormous clusters of Mega-warehouses are sprouting up around the country, bringing lackluster jobs and noxious pollution to weary communities.
- E-commerce requires cheap labor, but also extensive delivery services that erode air quality near residential areas, negatively impacting everyone, especially the vulnerable.
As the pandemic continues to unfold, online shopping is surging. A 2021 PwC report describes the pandemic as having created a “historic and dramatic shift in consumer behaviour”.
In September PwC surveyed 9,370 consumers in 26 territories or countries on their shopping habits, honing in which channels they use to purchase products such as clothes, books and electronics.
Mobile device shopping in particular is on the rise. 41% of respondents said they shopped weekly or even daily using their mobile or smartphone — 2% higher than March 2021 and 29% in 2016.
US retail e-commerce sales reached $767.7 billion in 2021.
According to a report by Statista:
“Revenue from retail e-commerce in the United States was estimated at roughly 768 billion U.S. dollars in 2021. The Statista Digital Market Outlook forecasts that by 2025, online shopping revenue in the U.S. will exceed 1.3 trillion dollars.”
With a global network of thousands of warehouses, Amazon is the leading e-retailer in the United States. In 2020, the firm’s annual revenue rose by 38% to $386 billion.
However, the growing appetite among consumers for the convenience of shopping at online retail giants is costing local communities their health.
What’s happening in the Inland Empire, California?
In December 2021, writer Evan Halper with the LA Times reported on how clusters of mega-warehouses built to meet the demand for online shopping have created what researchers call “diesel death zones”.
Situated in the Inland Empire, Fontana is known as California’s warehouse epicentre. It’s home to over 50 warehouse sites – including Amazon and UPS – that take up around 16 million square feet of the city.
Many of these warehouses reside next to residential housing and schools, and thousands of trucks contribute to the city’s traffic pollution every day.
In April 2021, Fontana approved a new Slover and Oleander warehouse project next to Jurupa Hills High School.
Two months later, during a city council meeting, 53 community members appealed to stop the project, voicing concerns around increased traffic and pollution.
Fontana is an area that is already overburdened with pollution. The new project would add approximately 114 daily truck trips and 272 daily passenger car trips daily.
Although only one city council member voted in support of the appeal, it caught the attention of California’s Attorney General, Bob Bonta. His Environmental Justice Bureau filed a lawsuit against the city of Fontana in July 2021 challenging the project.
In a press release, he said:
“Fontana residents shouldn’t have to choose between economic development and clean air. They deserve both. Unfortunately, the City of Fontana cut corners when it approved the Slover and Oleander Warehouse Project.
“We’re going to court today to compel the City to go back and take a hard look at the environmental impacts of this project – and do all it can to mitigate the potential harms to local residents and workers – before moving forward.”
Creating a stable, eco-conscious jobs market
A decade ago, before the warehouse boom, unemployment in the city was high.
Fontana’s mayor touts the jobs the warehouses have created, describing them as “job centres” and “the key to our economic vitality”.
According to the new Inland Empire Business Activity Index released in October 2021, business activity in the region expanded by 8% in the second quarter of 2021, outpacing a 6.6% growth rate in the US.
Some community members voted in favour of the project at the June city council meeting, including members of a local union who described the jobs created by similar warehouse projects as providing a lifeline for local people during the pandemic.
Warehouse jobs can be gruelling. “It’s a lot of wear and tear on the body,” one former Amazon worker told the Guardian last year.
She quit after injuring her arm during a shift, however returned as it was the only place she knew she could find work during the lockdown, describing it as “pretty much the only option”.
San Bernardino Airport is situated 10 miles from Fontana. In 2019, an extension was approved to host a 658,000 square foot air cargo warehouse for Amazon that would result in 26 flights and at least 500 truck trips every day.
The Attorney General’s office has also filed a lawsuit against the project developers in San Bernardino, criticising them for failing to consider the high asthma rates and other health issues already faced by people in the local community.
The impact of air pollution on children and babies
Babies and young children are at higher risk from the toxins caused by pollution as their bodies are developing and, proportionally, they breathe in more air than adults.
Stanford University researchers recently discovered that breathing dirty air alters gene expression in young children in a way that could predispose them to heart disease as adults.
Meanwhile, an ongoing study of over 12,000 school children by the University of Southern California found that those exposed to high levels of air pollution had smaller and more unhealthy lungs by the time they reached adulthood.
Speaking to The Orange County Register, Dr. Afif El-Hasan, an Orange County paediatrician and a spokesperson for the American Lung Association, said people should be “extremely concerned” about pollution levels in the Inland Empire and the risks to children living there.
“If you’re basically condemning these children to reduced lung capacity for their lives, and not giving them healthy air to breathe, they’re going to have problems later on, whether it’s going to be directly in the lungs or in another part of their bodies.”
Unless efforts are made to clean the region’s air, “it is going to affect the allocation of resources later on, when all of these kids who were exposed to all this air pollution become very sick and require expensive treatment,” he added.
How can we reduce e-commerce pollution?
There are steps governments and organisations can take to mitigate concentrated warehouse air pollution, and there are choices we can make as consumers too.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District board regulates air quality in the Inland Empire region.
In 2021, it passed through a landmark ruling that requires warehouses that comprise 100,000 square feet or more to minimise their environmental impact, for example by using electric trucks or installing solar panels.
The rule will come into force in 2022.
Some companies are using fourth generation technologies such as AI to plot less fuel-intensive routes.
In Pittsburgh, for example, machine learning has reduced vehicle engine idling by 40% which has led to an estimated 20% reduction in carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles City Council has committed to a Ship It Zero initiative. It requires Walmart, Target, IKEA, Amazon and other top maritime import polluters to the Port of LA to achieve 100% zero-emission shipping in LA by 2030.
Individuals can do their bit for the environment by using their spending power to make more eco-friendly online choices. Shopping at local independent businesses is one option.
Many local businesses who relied solely on bricks and mortar footfall prior to the pandemic have now also launched ecommerce websites.
There are plenty of ethical e-commerce alternatives that are just as convenient to use as some of the larger online brands. In 2020, Allwork.Space wrote about Bookshop.org, an online retailer that supports local, independent bookstores.
If you want to educate yourself on ethical consumerism, you use services like Ethical Consumer to explore the ethical ratings of thousands of companies, brands and products.