Amazon Prime continues to gain traction with customers. One of Amazon.com's most popular options, Amazon Prime, offers free two-day shipping on many items, along with video and music streaming in addition to other services, all for just $99 a year. (The yearly fee will increase to $119 on May 11 for new members and on June 16 for renewals.) Amazon doesn't disclose sales figures, but it did reveal in April that it has surpassed 100 million users.
But for eco-conscious consumers, is Amazon Prime the best option? Does the ease of free shipping make us more wasteful? Does Amazon always make the most eco-friendly shipping decisions?
Amazon.com declined to comment for this article, but we did hear from several of the online retailer's customers — both individuals and companies — who offered their perspectives.
1-click equals one-stop shopping
"I've been an Amazon Prime user for years," says Karen Hoxmeier, founder of MyBargainBuddy.com. Not only does she love the convenience of online shopping — and Amazon Prime's speed delivery — she points to Amazon's commitment to reducing packaging waste and using environmentally friendly packaging as proof that the service is eco-friendly.
Ordering gifts for out-of-state relatives through Amazon Prime is green, she says, because it cuts down on her driving from store to store. "Using Amazon Prime saves me from having to drive to the mall to buy birthday and holiday gifts for my nieces and nephews. It also saves me from having to drive to the post office to purchase boxes and packaging peanuts, which are probably less environmentally friendly than the ones Amazon uses."
J.E. Mathewson also uses Amazon to cut down on her driving, although she says she often starts her search in a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer. "Sometimes I'll be at Walmart and they don't have what I want. Instead of driving from store to store looking for it, I just pull up my Amazon app and purchase what I need while still in the store." This has not only reduced the number of errands she makes, it also ensures she's getting the best price. "When I'm at the store I can use the Amazon app on my phone and often find the price is cheaper and order it instantly from my phone," she says.
Mathewson also takes advantage of Amazon Prime's streaming video to cut down on her trips to borrow movies from Redbox.
Too many packages, too much waste
But Carol Holst, founder of Postconsumers.com, says online shopping is "just too darn easy. One-click shopping made it too easy to not have to think about the process of buying, and now programs like Amazon Prime mean that you don't even have to think about the cost or carbon footprint of shipping."
Sometimes that cost becomes evident over time. Kimberly Gauthier, editor in chief of Keep the Tail Wagging magazine, was placing orders for pet supplies every week only to find that "our recycling bin was filling up with boxes too quickly and the overflow was stored in the garage." She also complained that many of the vendors who sell through Amazon "were shipping a small item in a larger-than-necessary box with the peanuts. The amount of trash we were creating made me take a second look at our shopping." She says they canceled their Amazon Prime account and were able to reduce their waste and save money by shopping locally and watching for coupons.
The complaints about shipping aren't unique — photos of tiny products shipped in big Amazon boxes are common on Flickr — nor are they only coming from consumers; some of Amazon's vendors have noticed it as well. GoVacuum.com, which sells Amazon Prime-eligible products through the Fulfillment by Amazon Program, found that Amazon shipping went against what the company was trying to achieve with one of the company's products. "We make our own vacuum cleaner bags and chose to have them paper-based versus synthetic fiber, as they are more Earth-friendly this way," says Justin Haver, the company's vice president of sales and marketing. Although they designed the bags to be shipped using just a mailing label and no additional packaging, that didn't work for Amazon. "If we used Amazon fulfillment for these bags, they would be put in an Amazon shipping box with plastic air bubbles to ship to a consumer." They decided that wasn't an eco-friendly option and decided not to sell those bags through Amazon.
A rapidly greening distribution channel
Even though Amazon fulfillment wasn't the right choice for that particular GoVacuum product, Haver says "Amazon is more Earth-friendly than the old way we did business." Five years ago, he says they were dealing with manufacturers all over the country, many of which were located on the West Coast and had to ship their products to GoVacuum's warehouse in Virginia. When the company got an order from a customer on the West Coast, employees would have to ship those products back west again.
Now, GoVacuum can take advantage of Amazon's warehouses throughout the country. "This helps to reduce the travel distance for products, and thus emissions are less," Haver says. And since Amazon is opening more and more fulfillment centers, he expects things to get even greener over time.
Haver thinks it is too early to tell if Amazon Prime is greener than shopping at a local retailer, "but I feel it will be very soon."
As for general consumers, online shopping through Amazon Prime or any other retail option tends to work best when you plan ahead. Gauthier originally signed up for Amazon Prime when she was shopping for high-priced photography equipment. "The price point of these items ensured that I was planning and budgeting my purchases," she says. Now that she has dropped her Prime account, she plans her pet-supply purchases wisely and only places bulk orders once or twice a year for things she can't find near her home. "Everything else is purchased locally," she says.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in September 2012.