Lawsuit showcases the dark side of the e-commerce boom
November 26, 2018 3:54 PM   Subscribe

Uh, no. The San Bernardino Board of Supervisors is polluting that small town, by intentionally turning it into ground zero for giant distribution warehouses.

There's probably an environmental impact associated with e-commerce, but I suspect it's more on the last-mile end, because that's the part that you don't have with traditional commerce. With traditional stores, you still have cheap plastic shit being made in China, shipped to the US to a DC, distributed to wholesalers or big retailers, sent to a retail DC or crossdock, then sent to the point of sale. The e-commerce model can theoretically remove at least one of those warehouse steps, if it's implemented correctly, although I think in most current setups it's about the same.

That there are a ton of warehouses suddenly appearing in one town is totally a function of political failure, perhaps outright corruption (although it's unclear) in that locality.

There are a ton of empty warehouses, many from retail operations that have gone bankrupt or shrunk. If greenfields development was curtailed, there'd be more incentive to reuse those structures or remodel them to meet current best-practices designs. (I suspect a lot of existing warehouses aren't set up the way modern e-commerce shops want them, for low-inventory crossdocking and at least partially automated fulfillment.) It's weird and perverse whenever new construction is cheaper than reutilization of brownfields, and exactly the sort of market failure that responsible government should correct.

Depending on the market to fix, or shaming consumers for the byproducts of, capitalism is stupid. Profit maximizers gonna profit-maximize. If they're allowed to be shitty, they're goin' be shitty.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:18 PM on November 26, 2018 [19 favorites]

That article is pretty sparse on the details as to how this is actually a real issue and not a case of people just not wanting to live near a warehouse and using scary sounding rhetoric. The only thing I see is "the distribution center would add more than 1,000 trips per day to and from the busy I-10 and I-60 corridors". That's it. Is that a big number in the scheme of things? Is that going to make air quality that much worse? Dunno, and there's no evidence in there that says it is. (As far as I understand it the air quality in that region is so bad because smog/pollen from all over settles into a small area.)

I mean it's important to pay attention to stuff like this, but scary sounding articles without any significant data behind it are just noise. I'm sure noone wants a giant warehouse to be right next to their house. But take their objections with a giant grain of salt.
posted by aspo at 4:29 PM on November 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

The article could do a better job of selecting who to interview. I'm sure there were people who were more impacted by the warehouses, maybe someone with kids going to those affected schools.

It's hard to emphasize with retirees whose main concern was traffic and who apparently are able to move away from the problem.
posted by meowzilla at 5:30 PM on November 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yeah. Fuck capitalism, and amazon, and whatever, but there's no way that removing the retail step from shopping doesn't have a positive impact on energy use and pollution. There's no way that it's not a better overall use of resources for packages to come to me on a truck than for me to take that many roundtrips to target every week.
posted by dis_integration at 5:48 PM on November 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

When we get used to a much wider array of possible purchases, and getting them very soon after we click 'buy', there might well be more shipping, more total warehouse space, more traffic on each street. When I had to haul down to the store and could only buy what they had, I probably forwent purchases I make now.

If we could actually charge for externalities, we'd find out pretty soon where the sweet spot in getting us our stuff is. (Maybe we could have *either* very specific stuff, *or* quick delivery, more efficiently than store retail -- but not both.)
posted by clew at 6:18 PM on November 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

I guess it depends on whether people actually buy more stuff now than they used to, or would have otherwise in some Amazon-less world. I don't know if that's really the case; it's not like the savings rate has gone down significantly in a way attributable to retail shopping increases. People's consumption tends to be limited—at least at the median income and below levels, not so much at the high end—by how much money they have to spend on stuff, not on lack of opportunities to trade money for stuff. You'd have to live in a really small town to not have more opportunities to spend money than you have money to spend. Certainly for the majority of the population, who live in urban areas, I don't think that's been the case for a while.

If Amazon drove down retail profit margins, as I think it has, so that people are getting more stuff per dollar, with less going to overhead and store profits, then I guess there might be an environmental impact... but it's hard to say really, because you'd have to track where that money that used to go (or would have gone) to store profit margins would have ended up getting spent as it moves through the economy. If it would have gotten spent on gasoline, or coal-fired electricity, it might not be a net win for the planet.

The environmental argument seems like it would take some real digging into the data—more concerning, though, is the way Amazon takes money out of communities and shifts it much more efficiently to manufacturers. When you shop local, the money has an opportunity to circulate in the community, perhaps paying for services a few times before it ends up going 'out the door'. Amazon has reduced the friction involved in going manufacturer-to-consumer, and maintains very low overhead itself (it's famously barely even profitable). That "efficiency" is also called "job losses" if you're the one on the receiving end.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:55 PM on November 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

Even taking out the brick-and-mortar retail middleman wouldn't necessarily be bad if it took less resources to buy almost-directly from the producers and we almost-all worked in that production. This isn't so far from the status quo -- there was a lot more local production in living memory, there was light manufacturing in most cities and towns.
posted by clew at 8:01 PM on November 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Related and Previously:
Warehouse Empire Behind the largest undercover bribe the FBI ever paid to a public official is the story of how our whole consumer economy has been transformed, bringing lung-stunting pollution and, in some cases political corruption.
posted by notyou at 9:35 PM on November 26, 2018

The effect Amazon has on your particular local economy will vary quite widely, of course. Partly it depends on what the other options are. (Home Depot vs. a lovely owned Ace Hardware franchise, to pick one example) It also largely depends on Amazon itself.

There are 3 large Amazon warehouses in my taxing jurisdiction, plus the smaller Prime Now warehouse. The stuff I order from them is usually delivered by someone getting paid $18/hour by Amazon. I suspect at least as much money from my Amazon purchases circulate in my community as would if I walked down the street to Target instead, but less than the vape shop next door.

In other places, I've lived, on the other hand, only a tiny slice stuck around in the form of part of a delivery person's wage because Amazon's nearest warehouse was in another state, so it supported essentially zero local employment.

That said, I've seen a few small towns where the ease of getting product shipped from Internet retailers and/or wholesalers enabled people to start small retail shops that would have been difficult to make workable with traditional distribution. Those are the extreme exceptions, though, rarer even than the places where Amazon has a big enough employment presence to keep much of the income from local sales circulating locally.
posted by wierdo at 8:53 AM on November 27, 2018

Wired: If you hate traffic, curb your love for online shopping.

My suggestion for the single policy that most increases the negative externalities of e-commerce: allowing private delivery services. Having so much of the shipping divided among different carriers does a lot to increase the industry's emissions, traffic, and land use. The express services' outsourcing of some local deliveries to USPS mitigates the worst effects for local deliveries, but leaves us with plenty of duplicate routes being driven or flown for the longer route segments, and lots of land devoted to duplicate warehouses for sorting.

I wonder what e-commerce would look like in the US if USPS were the sole shipper (and hadn't had its ability to fund improvements to service stripped by bizarre pension obligations and limitations on express parcel service.) USPS is not perfect, but it's a lot easier to accommodate regular daily delivery to everyone on fixed local routes than it is to accommodate who-knows-how-many different vans making deliveries all over the place. And that's just the local segment. What if retail distribution and shipping facilities could be more tightly integrated because the retailers wouldn't be juggling multiple shippers? That'd save some trips.

What if there weren't so many incentives for inefficiency built into the system? Because we're all paying for that inefficiency somewhere, whether it's in shipping costs or respiratory illness or disposal and recycling costs for all that cardboard. Or in having a bunch of warehouses move in next door, like the people in the Curbed article. (Their arguments are basically all standard NIMBY fodder that I've heard used to argue against building housing, but they've got a point here.)
posted by asperity at 2:34 PM on November 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

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