Exclusive: The dark side of our online shopping obsession

As we move towards a culture of next-day deliveries, online shopping and free returns, Pippa Neill and Chloe Coules investigate the environmental and social impact of the UK’s evergrowing warehouse infrastructure.

Over the past few decades, online shopping has seen exponential growth. According to the Office for National Statistics, 2020 saw a 37% increase in online shopping, over six times that of 2019. Aided by the Covid-19 pandemic, there has also been growth in the number of next-day deliveries. In a recent report, the Retail Technology Review found that 43% of consumers now opt for next-day delivery, with 17% stating they would abandon a brand if they face a long delivery wait.

As companies come under increased pressure to offer faster and more efficient delivery, many e-commerce giants have been forced to expand their facilities. According to Savills, the estate agents who monitor warehouse capacity across the UK, there has been a 32% increase in the overall number of warehousing units since 2015 and a 242% increase in the number of units that are over 1 million square feet.

This growth has led to something called the ‘Golden Triangle’, an area spanning across Northamptonshire, Tamworth and Nottingham where the majority of warehouses are strategically located to allow for 90% of deliveries to be completed within four hours. In 2015, the golden triangle was home to 13.4 million square metres of warehouse space. It is now home to 18.5 million.

It comes as no surprise that growth on this scale is going to lead to some environmental issues, from land use change, air pollution and energy use.

In order to look at the air pollution impact, Air Quality News has collaborated with EarthSense to conduct some exclusive research, looking at Magna Park, Lutterworth, Europe’s largest distribution centre located in Leicestershire. Magna Park is home to the likes of DHL, Asda and Primark and occupies an excess of 8.3 million square feet of logistics space.

Using mobile EarthSense Zephyr® air quality monitors, air pollution data was captured in real-time whilst walking around four different locations: a loop around Magna Park which was completed three times, and then a route around three small town / village locations selected to compare against Magna Park, Lutterworth, Monks Kirby and Bitteswell.

The route around Magna Park recorded the highest maximum concentrations of NO2, O3 and PM2.5. Notably, this route also had the highest average concentration of NO2, which is to be expected given the high volume of commercial traffic in and around Magna Park.

EarthSense has highlighted that whilst these maximum concentrations aren’t concerning in terms of air quality limits, it does evidence that Magna Park is a clear source of air pollution emissions in this local area.

Analysis has also been carried out to determine exactly when the pollution episodes occurred.

3.2 Magna Park loop

Around Magna Park a number of pollution episodes were recorded by the monitor. Significantly a sharp peak in NO2 was recorded on each loop of the routes. Each of these peaks can be attributed to a nearby traffic source noted down when the route was being walked. This included a nearby roundabout and the passing of lorries and cars.

Of all the four locations, the route around Magna Park was consistently the most polluted with regard to NO2 concentrations, and it also had the highest recorded measurement of NO2, O3 and PM2.5. This is again unsurprising given the high volume of traffic.

While these findings are significant and highlight that Magna Park is a potential pollution hotspot, it is important to note that this data was collected on a single day and the mobile measurements made by the Zephyr® monitors represent just a snapshot in time.

Air Quality News has contacted Magna Park to comment on our findings, but at the time of going to press, they are yet to respond.

Despite this clear contribution to air pollution, Magna Park has planning permission to expand its warehouse capacity by 60%. This is in line with plans across the region, in a recent Warehousing and Logistics Report, Leicester and Leicestershire Authorities recommended that the council plan for an additional 2.5 million square meters of floor space by 2041.

Cllr David Bill MBE, from Leicestershire County Council, commenting on these plans and our findings, says: ‘These findings are disturbing but not entirely unexpected as there has been a massive growth in warehousing not just in and around Magna Park but all along the A5 area.

‘The move to online shopping accelerated by the pandemic is bringing about this concentration in warehousing and HGV movements, a trend likely to be further exacerbated by a proposed new freight depot just up the road in Burbage.

‘Back in October 2021, Leicestershire County Council received a report from its director of public health outlining the impact of poor air quality. He told us that a quarter of deaths could be attributed to the factor. In light of these latest findings, I will now be asking for a further review. We surely have the right to be able to breathe clean air here in the heart of the country as much as everywhere else.’

Magna Park is just one example of a UK warehouse that distributes goods across the country, but this is not an isolated issue. Recent analysis by the United Kingdom Warehousing Association (UKWA) and Savills found that there are over 1,500 individual warehouse units in the UK, and with the growth of online shopping and next-day delivery, these trends show no sign of slowing down.

Valentine Quino, analyst at think tank Centre for London, tells Air Quality News: ‘We need to think more about our consumption footprint. In many places, air pollution does not happen where consumption happens, and for people living in these areas, near these industrial warehouses where trucks and lorries drive around every day, there is a real fairness question behind it.

‘We already know that air pollution doesn’t impact everyone equally, and we know that some of the most polluted areas are often in areas where income levels are the lowest.

‘We also need to consider the planning in terms of where jobs are located. When logistic hubs, business parks or enterprise zones are located on the outskirts of a city it creates car dependency. We really need to question the environmental impact of displacing jobs outside of cities because it has a real impact on how we travel.’

It is clear that as we move to a world of online shopping, and as our expectations of next-day deliveries increase, more and more retailers will have to expand their warehouse space to keep up with the competitive market, but at what cost? As stated by Valentine Quino: ‘The question we need to ask is: who is impacted, who is polluting and who is paying the price at the end.’

The social impacts of warehousing – Chloe Coules

Alongside the environmental damage that warehousing can cause, there are issues around the social and economic impacts of this growing practice.

The introduction of jobs to a community is often cited as a benefit of building new warehouses, but there is debate around the quality of these jobs and their economic value for the community.

Speaking to Air Quality News, Akilah Jardine, researcher at the University of Nottingham Rights Lab, explains that warehouse staff face a range of poor working conditions, including feeling disposable and insecure in their employment, lacking flexibility in hours, feeling unable to complain about conditions due to poor relationships with management, and experiencing ‘immense’ pressure to meet quotas.

In her study, warehouse staff also reported health and safety issues, frequent injuries, long hours, and insufficient pay.

Even though building a warehouse creates jobs, there is research that suggests that this does not economically benefit the local area.

A report from the Economic Policy Institute found that when Amazon opens a new fulfilment centre in America, the host county gains around 30% more warehousing and storage jobs, but this does not lead to any new overall jobs, as the increase in jobs is offset by job losses in other industries.

The Institute explains that this is important as the local government spends lots of money and resources to attract warehousing jobs, but the expected economic benefit is often not seen.

This leads us to question the value of warehousing for a local community, given the costs to the environment, and the wider social impacts.

This article first appeared in the Air Quality News magazine, which is available to view here. 

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