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The uncomfortable truth about free shipping

It's not as ‘free' as you think. Someone always pays.

There are many reasons to be cautious about online shopping, and we've been talking about these on TreeHugger for a while. Not only is there the increased ingestion and pollution from idling engines as delivery trucks clog streets to deliver parcels to our doorsteps in record time, but there's also the immense scandal surrounding what happens to returned products, and the fact that many get tossed in landfill or incinerated because it takes too much effort for companies to reshelve them.

Now I'm going to give you another reason to be wary about online shopping: the expectation of free shipping crushes small-scale online retailers. A fascinating article for The Atlantic, titled ‘Stop Believing in Free Shipping‘ by Amanda Mull, delves into the weird obsession we North Americans have with free shipping, and how we'd rather know that our goods will ship for free than get a discount on the total worth the same amount. We've come to see free shipping as a right, an expectation in return for our act of spending – and yet, this fails to take into account what actually needs to happen to get items from point A to point B. And it's not magic.

The problem is that small businesses, such as those on the handicraft platform Etsy, cannot compete with the retail giants like Amazon and Walmart when it comes to free shipping; and yet, recent algorithmic changes to the platform reward those that offer it. Suddenly sellers that were previously successful are struggling to make ends meet, since absorbing the cost of shipping is eating significantly into their profits. Mull writes,

“The main reason small businesses can’t keep up with the behemoths is economies of scale. Thanks to their huge infrastructure, mega-retailers simply pay less per package for shipping. Scale also helps when it comes to an ever more popular companion to free shipping: free returns. They’re another salve for the pain of paying, but processing returns requires manpower and eats into profits.”

Etsy shoppers might not realize that their packages are being mailed individually by a human, likely the same one who has worked hard to make the product. To assume that prompt delivery service should also be free of charge is unfortunate and unfair.

It's time for a reset, to realize that there should be a price to pay for the convenience of online shopping, even if it's just a nominal shipping fee. That, at the very least, would force shoppers to be slightly less impulsive about their purchases, to consider whether it might be easier to walk to a store downtown to buy the same item, and to pick sizes carefully to avoid incurring return shipping fees.

It's important to realize that shipping is never really free; it's costing someone, and that someone might be struggling to absorb the cost of it more than you think.

It's not as ‘free' as you think. Someone always pays.