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Want it tomorrow? Some online shopping habits are terrible for the environment

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Have you ever picked two-day shipping because it’s free with an Amazon Prime membership? Or returned an item of clothing using the free return shipping label because you weren’t sure which size to buy, so you bought more than one?

What you may not have realized is those convenient perks can drastically expand the carbon footprint of an online sale. And think of that multiplied by millions of shoppers across Canada and billions around the world.

“I think everyone should care about it,” said Sharon Cullinane, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden who has been studying the environmental impact of online shopping for nearly a decade.

Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the weeks leading to and following them mark a pre-Christmas online shopping frenzy across North America, culminating in a parcel baby boom a week or so later.

On Dec. 4, 2017, Canada Post broke a record for most parcels delivered in a day — 1.83 million. Despite the current rotating strikes, the Crown corporation’s parcel delivery revenue has been growing more than 20 per cent a year with the exploding popularity of online shopping.

A comparison of greenhouse gas emissions from in-store and online shopping, with and without rush delivery, of a toy in an urban area. This doesn’t include the research step. Emissions are in kilograms of CO2 equivalents.

In theory, buying online could be greener than going to a store.

A 2013 study from MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics calculated that the carbon footprint of a traditional shopper purchasing a toy in a store is higher that that of someone who buys the same thing online with regular shipping (more about that later).

That’s because parcel carriers use a more efficient delivery system than you driving to the mall, and the carbon footprint of a website is smaller than that of a brick-and-mortar store.

A 2013 study calculated that the carbon footprint of a traditional shopper is double that of someone who buys the same thing online. But fast shipping and no-charge returns are among the many factors that can change that. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

But Cullinane has found it isn’t clear whether online or traditional shopping is greener because so many factors come into play. Here’s a look at some, many of which shoppers have some control over.

‘Colossal’ stress on the logistics system

“Want it today?” Online retail giant Amazon routinely tempts customers with that question. And it offers free two-day shipping to customers who subscribe to its Amazon Prime service.

That’s set up some high expectations. A recent UPS study found 63 per cent of Canadians expect orders placed by noon to qualify for same-day delivery and 61 per cent expect orders placed by 5 p.m. to arrive the next day.

“The stress that puts on the logistics system and therefore the impacts on the environment … is quite colossal,” said Cullinane.

Faster shipping completely changes what’s needed to get your order to you, and that drastically increases the carbon emissions generated in the process — the MIT study found online shopping with rush delivery was less environmentally friendly than going to the store.

A UPS survey found 40 per cent of Canadian consumers shop online and and at a brick-and-mortar store for the same purchase. ‘Either do one or the other,’ advises Miguel Jaller, a researcher at the University of California Davis. (Kite_rin/Shutterstock)

With normal shipping, retailers consolidate orders into as few boxes as possible, pack trucks as full as possible and choose the most efficient routes to make as many deliveries as possible over the shortest distance.

With faster shipping, all that becomes difficult or impossible, said Miguel Jaller, a researcher at the University of California Davis who studies sustainable transportation and logistics.

Emptier trucks have to deliver to fewer customers who are farther apart in order to meet deadlines. That means more trucks driving longer distances per delivery, and often multiple deliveries for the same order, generating a lot more emissions and traffic. In some cases, retailers may even have to use planes to move products from one warehouse to another to speed things up.

Jaller recommends not choosing faster shipping unless you need it, even if it’s free or you’ve already paid for the option.

Buy 3 sizes, return 2

Maybe you bought three sizes of the same shoes because you weren’t sure which would fit. Or added an item you didn’t really want to meet the free-shipping threshold. Or just impulse-bought something that was on sale and then thought better of it.

Chances are, you’ve taken advantage of free online returns.

They make people more willing to buy items they’ve never seen. But they come at a high environmental cost, says Cullinane, who’s been studying returns in detail.

Her recent study found people tend to over-order online and have a return rate of about 25 to 30 per cent, compared to six to 10 per cent when they deal with physical shops.

And it’s worst at this time of year. Canada Post said return volumes increased 17 per cent during Cyber Week last year compared to a week prior.

Returned items don’t just go back to the local store — they often feed into a global logistics system that may take them to be processed in a country where wages are lower.

The returned goods make journeys of thousands of miles,” Cullinane said, adding that to make matters worse, retailers often expedite shipping to make an item available to another customer as quickly as possible.

Discouraging unnecessary returns and the carbon emissions that go with them is one reason Toronto sustainable clothing retailer Miik doesn’t offer free return shipping, says company president Susan Cadman. (Emily Chung/CBC)

Discouraging unnecessary returns and the carbon emissions that go with them is one reason Toronto sustainable clothing retailer Miik doesn’t offer free return shipping, says company president Susan Cadman.

Miik is also trying other methods to discourage returns, like putting better sizing information online and getting customer service to help customers find the right size.

But customers can also make a difference by choosing to order less and minimize returns, or returning items to a store if they were making that trip anyway, instead of shipping them.

Cullinane suggests, “If you send something back, think about what happens to it.”

We’re No. 1 in cross-border online shopping

According to the recent UPS survey, Canadians are the biggest international online shoppers in the world. Among Canadian respondents, 83 per cent had bought from an international retailer, most commonly in the U.S. or China. Most said it was because the brands or products they like were not available in Canada or were cheaper elsewhere.

Amazon offers free two-day shipping to subscribers of its Amazon Prime service. Researchers say customers should only use it when they need it, as shorter delivery times reduce efficiency and increase greenhouse gas emissions. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

Of course, buying from far away generates more emissions.

When you buy an international product from a local store, it probably came by boat and truck in a very full, efficient load. If you purchase something similar online, it makes a faster, sometimes complicated journey that generally involves air travel.

Cullinane recommends thinking about that before you buy something from overseas because it’s a little cheaper.

“If one has come from Asia, and one has come from a more local place, think about what that actually means in terms of [the] environment,” she said.

And what if you have to return it? Her recent study notes that returns from Asia often go by air, “thus magnifying the adverse environmental impacts.”

Nobody’s home

Sometimes when a delivery truck takes an online order to a customer’s home, no one is there to accept it.

That means the truck needs to go back, perhaps multiple times, generating extra emissions, before dropping off the order or taking it to a post office or courier outlet where the customer has to retrieve it.

Cullinane has experienced 11 delivery attempts on an online order, even though she texted the delivery company every day to tell them she wouldn’t be there.

Canada Post said return volumes increased 17 per cent during Cyber Week last year compared to a week prior. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

One way to prevent this is for orders to be delivered to a nearby pickup point such as a store or post office. That can also allow delivery companies to consolidate many orders more efficiently, making that greener, provided it doesn’t result in an extra long car trip for the customer.

Such delivery locations are common in Sweden, Cullinane said.

But in Canada, UPS found survey respondents had orders shipped somewhere other than their home only 38 per cent of the time. Only U.S. customers did that less often.

Cullinane suggests alternate delivery points might work better if governments got involved in making them public infrastructure like bus stops.

How about just buying less?

It goes without saying that the most effective way to reduce your online shopping carbon footprint is by buying less.

Unfortunately, Jaller’s research shows that in fact, people are buying more, both online and offline.

This is an online shopping pickup point in Hong Kong. In some countries, they’re popular, but in Canada, online shoppers get items shipped to a point other than their home only 38 per cent of the time. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

In fact, the recent UPS survey found 40 per cent of Canadian might make part of the same purchase both online and offline, generating carbon emissions from both. They might visit a store to look at something, then order it online, or order most of their groceries for delivery, but pick up a few fruits and veggies in-store.

Jaller advises shoppers: “Either do one or the other.”

He and Cullinane urge shoppers to be more mindful of what they buy, and plan ahead when they can.

Jaller suggests that if you need something regularly, it’s better to get a subscription so retailers and logistics and delivery companies can plan for a more efficient delivery.

“We are not paying for fast shipping, we are not paying for returns, but there’s a cost to society,” says Jaller. “It is our duty to have sustainable choices in our shopping behaviour.”

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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