Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Amazon and the urban landscape

Writing this blog helps me get something more useful out of my addiction of consuming news, which gets depressing by the day. But Professor Hal Varian himself thinks the best place to find ideas for research is the news and popular press rather than academic journals (link to his paper). So the idea for this post comes from a discussion on NPR a while back (link). It was on the unintended consequences of Amazon on cities. This reminded me of my own and only appearance on public radio till date (link) from about a year back talking about a related topic.

I work on LCA, which is largely, although not exclusively, about assessing the greenness of individual products or actions such as shopping online and more importantly, how does this compare to an alternative way of satisfying the need in question. LCA is not very meaningful in an absolute sense, it is only in a relative sense, i.e., when comparing alternatives. And so I have thus far only thought seriously about adding up all the pollution when you shop online vis-a-vis from a brick and mortar store. But this NPR program raised some really interesting and challenging issues both from an LCA and an urban sustainability standpoint. Online shopping is slowly but surely changing our landscape. For one, it is driving several types of retail stores to close down and this includes individually owned and outlets of large retail chains. Somehow, we tend to feel more badly about the former although the lives of employees in both is affected. At the sometime there is a boom in restaurants and bars (See this news article). It is hard to say how much of this because of rents being lower which is in turn driven by store closings, and how much is simply because of increase in demand for eating out and drinking. The two might not be unrelated. Amazon and online shopping is driving store closings and also freeing up money to spend on eating out.

So how do we begin to grasp the environmental impact of online shopping when there are all these ripple effects? LCA has a role here but this is a classic question for interdisciplinary research for understanding the environmental impacts requires a grasp of the economic implications. A great topic for research.

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