Minimizing e-commerce’s carbon impact: How one company is accomplishing it

E-commerce carbon offset program

The growth of e-commerce has made shopping more convenient for consumers, especially during the past year as the world grappled with stay-at-home orders because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has also put more vehicles on the road and shipping boxes into the supply chain.

The result is a global increase in carbon dioxide (CO2). According to Shopify, the e-commerce platform designed for many smaller retailers, greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere are at their highest levels in history, sitting at 400 parts per million (ppm). For comparison, CO2 sat at 280 ppm prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Wired reported that CO2 from trucks and planes contributes 55,000 metric tons to the atmosphere in the U.S. each year. The average e-commerce sale produces 1.4 kg of emissions, according to MIT.

Shopify has committed to investing at least $1 million each year into carbon sequestration, which is the “process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Etsy, similarly, announced in 2019 that it would pick up the tab on high-quality carbon offsets for consumers using its site. The e-commerce platform estimates that the cost to do so is less than 1 cent per package.

Read: 2020 holiday shopping season dubbed most environmentally friendly

Shippers can help reduce e-commerce’s carbon footprint through several strategies, including shrinking packaging materials, consolidating shipments and use of more fuel-efficient vehicles. That last point, though, is proving difficult. While electric delivery vehicles are growing in popularity, their overall carbon impact is difficult to determine, depending on how the electricity is generated. Additionally, UPS (NYSE: UPS), which is among the leaders in alternative power vehicles, recently said that government grants are necessary to jump-start the adoption of electric vehicles.

Most e-commerce shippers and the customers that order and consume those goods have few options to offset the carbon emissions short of refusing to make an online purchase. One company, EcoCart, is out to change that by empowering consumers and shippers to make a difference.

“We’re building this really engaged community of eco-conscious people, on the consumer side, but also on the business side. Over time, we’re trying to make as big of an impact as we possibly can by securing more brands into our API and consumers [using the browser extension].”

Dane Baker, EcoCart co-founder

The San Francisco-based startup offers two products, an application programming interface (API) for shippers and a Google Chrome browser extension for consumers. When installed, EcoCart’s algorithms automatically calculate the carbon footprint of the online order and offer the consumer the chance to buy carbon offsets for that purchase. According to co-founder Dane Baker, that cost is typically less than $1 per purchase.

“We’re building this really engaged community of eco-conscious people, on the consumer side, but also on the business side,” Baker told FreightWaves. “Over time, we’re trying to make as big of an impact as we possibly can by securing more brands into our API and consumers [using the browser extension].”

Read: Fostering sustainable supply chains in era of expedited shipping

EcoCart has over 10,000 brand partners participating, including more than 300 brands that have integrated its API, as well as more than 4,000 consumers that have installed the free Chrome browser extension, Baker said.

Among the brands that are participating are Foot Locker, Freshly, Sephora, Kohl’s, Bose, Levi’s, Petco, Ulta Beauty and Vans. In some cases, Baker said, the businesses themselves may pick up the cost of the carbon offsets. For consumers who use the browser extension, or visit a participating site, they will see a box at checkout asking if they would like to offset their carbon emissions. For those, it will add a slight cost to the final purchase price.

EcoCart collects the funds and invests them into eco-conscious projects. Baker said the company is investing in about seven projects currently. These include efforts to protect a Spruce forest in Massachusetts; water purification programs in Khum Longvek, Cambodia; and a wind energy creation program in Kayseri, Turkey.

Baker said consumers can even see the eligible projects and choose which one they would like their donations to go toward.

“We’ve focused really heavily on building transparency into the entire experience so the consumer knows where their dollars are being spent,” Baker said, noting that more than 25 million pounds of CO2 have been offset so far through EcoCart, which launched about a year ago. That is equivalent to saving about 800,000 trees, he added.

A screenshot of a the checkout screen on shows the EcoCart carbon offset button in the upper right corner. (Photo: Brian Straight/FreightWaves)

Baker hopes that number jumps to over 250 million pounds of CO2 offset in 2021.

EcoCart was founded by Baker and Peter Twomey. Baker and Twomey previously created Toyroom, a peer-to-peer rental marketplace for adventure items, and it was during that time that the idea for EcoCart was born.

“As we scaled, it became incredibly complicated and expensive to maintain the sustainability rigor [we wanted],” Baker said. “There’s a big gap in the market, especially for e-commerce brands and … we realized there was huge power in being able to offset the carbon footprint with carbon offsets.”

According to Baker, about 25% of consumers who see the EcoCart box at checkout click it.

EcoCart participated in and received an investment from the 500 Startups accelerator program, and while the team is small at this time – around 10 with just three full-time employees – Baker anticipates growth. “We are hiring,” he said, and “looking for folks that are driven by a larger mission.”

Consumers can download the browser extension simply by visiting the EcoCart website and clicking the “Add to Chrome” link.

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Brian Straight.

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