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Shopping online this Black Friday? Your habits could be good for the planet — or part of the problem

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VANCOUVER—Think twice before you click “proceed to checkout” in a rush to take advantage of the widespread deals coming online Friday.

Those savings could come at a steep environmental cost. As online shopping continues to grow in popularity, the consequences for waste management and transportation-related emissions are becoming more serious.

Sam Copeland shops online at his North Vancouver apartment on Wednesday. Copeland says he uses Amazon largely for its convenience.
Sam Copeland shops online at his North Vancouver apartment on Wednesday. Copeland says he uses Amazon largely for its convenience.  (Jennifer Gauthier / for StarMetro Vancouver)

Both are already significant environmental challenges across the country. Transportation accounts for about a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and millions of tonnes of garbage wind up in landfills each year.

The question is whether increasing e-commerce can be part of the solution or only the problem, especially with people turning to online shopping en masse.

A survey of 5,000 Canadian online shoppers, conducted in March 2016 for Canada Post, found that one in four respondents spent more online than they did in store the year before.

Most online shoppers (48 per cent) were based in urban areas, with 31 per cent based in the suburbs and 20 per cent in rural areas or small towns.

Online shopping is driven by convenience and the opportunity to compare products and prices “without the hassle of pushing through crowds at stores,” the survey report says.

For Sam Copeland, a 24-year-old software engineer who works at a finance company in Vancouver, Amazon is almost unmatched for its convenience. He orders about twice a month. It could be cans of soup, cookies, oatmeal, toiletries — you name it, Amazon has it.

Copeland lives in North Vancouver and commutes by bus across Burrard Inlet to work in downtown Vancouver every day. He doesn’t own a car. He’s also completing a master’s degree in computational finance through the University of Washington part-time.

While the packaging — he said it’s often a lot — lingers at the back of his mind, his busy lifestyle makes the convenience of online shopping pretty attractive.

He used the online service much less often when he lived next door to a grocery store and down the road from a pharmacy in Kitsilano, a Vancouver neighbourhood southeast of downtown.

Now, he said, “I don’t really want to come home and then get on the bus to go to the store and buy toothpaste. I can order it and have it come two days later. Perfect.”

The cardboard boxes that carry online shopping orders may be recyclable, but even in Metro Vancouver, a hotbed of environmentalism, more than 14,000 tonnes of cardboard were dumped in the trash, not the recycling bin, in 2016.
The cardboard boxes that carry online shopping orders may be recyclable, but even in Metro Vancouver, a hotbed of environmentalism, more than 14,000 tonnes of cardboard were dumped in the trash, not the recycling bin, in 2016.  (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

But online shopping, particularly through e-commerce giant Amazon, has taken considerable heat over the years for wasteful packaging.

While the company says it has come a long way, it’s still not unusual for goods purchased online to come wrapped in plastic air pillows and packed in unnecessarily large cardboard boxes. Those may be recyclable, but even in Metro Vancouver, a hotbed of environmentalism, more than 14,000 tonnes of cardboard were dumped in the trash — not the recycling bin — in 2016, according to that year’s waste composition monitoring report.

A spokesperson for Amazon, Kaan Yalkin, said in a statement that the company has a global team working to reduce packaging waste and increase the use of recyclable materials. Over the past decade, the company has eliminated more than 221,000 tonnes of packaging through various initiatives, he said.

Other companies, including the clothing store Toad&Co, are working to reduce single-use packaging altogether, offering to ship products in a reusable mailer that can be shipped back to the store.

Aside from packaging, the rise of expedited and in some cases same-day delivery raises its own set of concerns, particularly amid the devastating wildfires, floods and extreme weather events worsened by climate change.

Anne Goodchild, a transportation engineer and founding director of the University of Washington’s Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center, has studied the impact of online shopping on travel behaviour. How it affects pollution depends on a variety of local factors.

But delivery services do have the potential to be a “significant benefit environmentally,” Goodchild said. It’s like a bus for goods.

In a best-case scenario, delivery services have the potential to be more efficient than personal vehicle travel and reduce CO2 levels emitted through transportation.
In a best-case scenario, delivery services have the potential to be more efficient than personal vehicle travel and reduce CO2 levels emitted through transportation.  (ANNE GOODCHILD / UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON)

Delivery services tend to be well organized, consolidating many deliveries into a single vehicle. Cities use a similar model for services such as garbage collection.

“It’s more efficient to have one person come around and pick up everybody’s stuff, and that’s obvious to us,” Goodchild said.

That’s the “utopian” view: “A very efficient, very consolidated, centralized distribution system that’s like a transit system for goods.”

In this scenario, having goods delivered could reduce pollution from that “last mile” of the distribution system, Goodchild said.

But that’s the best-case scenario. When online shoppers demand their products be delivered as quickly as possible, the opportunities for efficiency go right out the window, along with the environmental benefits.

Even in the best-case scenario, there’s a catch or two.

Using delivery services can reduce emissions such as CO2, which contribute to climate change no matter where they are produced. But other contaminants released by delivery vehicles, which tend to be diesel, can cause health problems locally.

The second problem is that the environmental benefits of delivery services really depend on whether it’s offsetting personal car use, said Alex Bigazzi, an assistant professor in both the department of Civil Engineering and the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia.

In cities where people tend to walk, bike or take transit, you would expect to see fewer benefits from online shopping and possibly an increase in local greenhouse gas emissions, he said. In more sprawling areas where people use personal cars for the vast majority of their trips, there’s more potential for environmental gains.

Goodchild agreed, explaining the net impact of delivery in a region depends on the details: the distance a package has to travel from the warehouse, how quickly a shopper is asking for it to be delivered and whether that shopper uses their car for another activity with the time they saved by shopping online.

In a statement, Yalkin said: “Amazon is committed to minimizing our carbon emissions by optimizing our transportation network, improving product packaging to drive efficiency in the distribution of products, implementing energy efficiency measures in our operations and using renewable energy to run our business.”

The company has made improvements to its own fleet of delivery vehicles to improve their fuel efficiency, he added. These measures include installing automatic tire-inflation systems that keep tires properly inflated and maximize fuel efficiency.

It’s also signed the “Sustainable Fuel Buyers’ Principles,” which among other things aim to help increase demand for low-carbon fuels.

But there’s more to be done to reduce the emissions impact of online shopping, Goodchild said. Individual shoppers have a role to play, too.

Here’s how to reduce the environmental impact of shopping online:

  • Goodchild suggests keeping a shopping list, so you can make one bulk order instead of several. Often, she added, Amazon has an option to consolidate the shipment so your purchases are delivered in one trip when they’re all ready. Choose that option whenever possible, she suggested.
  • Both Goodchild and Bigazzi said shoppers should resist the urge to ask for expedited shipping if it’s not really needed. A longer lead time means delivery services can plan the most efficient deliveries.
  • Jo-Anne St. Godard, the executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario, warned shoppers not to get caught up in the hype of Black Friday, regardless of whether they shop online or in-store. “Less is really more,” she said. “I think that’s the No. 1 way of keeping everybody’s waste down.”

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Ainslie Cruickshank is a Vancouver-based reporter covering the environment. Follow her on Twitter: @ainscruickshank

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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