E-commerce is often cited as offering the potential to reduce wholesale and retail burdens within product life cycles; however its potential impacts upon transport may be positive or negative. But the relative environmental importance of wholesale and retail trade and their intervening transportation links within product life cycles has not been generally characterized. The objective of this research was to assess the upstream (preusage) life-cycle energy burden shares associated with retail trade and wholesale trade using input-output life-cycle assessment (IO LCA) with a special focus on the electronic computers sector.
According to our results, the physical transfers of products within the distribution phase play a minor role in terms of energy consumption compared with wholesaling and retailing. On the other hand, the supply chains of the wholesale and retail trade sectors can lead to energy consumption that is a significant share of the total preconsumer energy consumption for many products. Thus, where e-commerce circumvents wholesale and/or retail trade, it can have a major impact on total preconsumer energy consumption.
As an example, for the electronic computers sector, retailing and wholesaling as a portion of distribution are responsible for 38% of the total energy consumption from production until purchase (cradle to gate), whereas transportation within the distribution phase corresponds to only 9%. Our analysis of more than 400 commodities in the United States showed that for the large majority of them, retailing and wholesaling account for appreciable shares of the total preconsumer energy burdens. Wholesaling and retailing should be included in LCA, and IO LCA is an effective tool for doing so.