During the pandemic, many people have switched to online shopping, even for their groceries. And businesses are betting that many of us value convenience enough that we want to continue having our groceries delivered even after the pandemic. A study predicts that 70% of us will buy groceries online by 2024. But should we? Is grocery delivery better or worse for the environment than going to the store?
In the days before refrigerators, it was common to have milk, eggs and ice delivered daily. As online shopping became popular around the turn of the 21stst century, Amazon and other retailers experimented with grocery delivery, but people clung to the supermarket. In 2013, only 1% of $ 850 billion Americans spent on groceries were spent online. That changed during the pandemic, when almost all supermarket chains set up their websites to shop online with delivery and pickup. Recently, the online grocer only Closed announced a partnership with last-mile food delivery service DoorDash, which will enable one-hour delivery to all of Farmstead’s active markets.
A 2013 study found that ordering groceries online could reduce carbon emissions from 20% to 75%. But e-commerce has changed a lot since 2013; today, the answer to whether the delivery of groceries is greener is not so clear.
Warehouse vs supermarket
A traditional supermarket consumes a lot of energy. These sprawling buildings must be kept at a temperature comfortable for shoppers while keeping food products chilled and frozen. Food in the grocery store has traveled from one warehouse – or more – through a complex distribution system. Overstocking is standard (consumers are more likely to buy on abundant-looking displays) and it is estimated that 10.5 million tonnes of food waste are generated annually by grocery stores.
If your groceries are delivered from the same store you would buy in person, there is no environmental benefit. But drop shipping a distribution center has the potential to eliminate some inefficiencies in retailing. Distribution centers eliminate at least one step in the distribution system, can store food in a way that keeps it fresh for the longest time instead of placing it in attractive displays for consumers, and can only order what they want. know how to sell.
Last mile impacts
Last mile delivery has a disproportionate impact on retail purchases and can negate some of the efficiencies of a warehouse. Secondary packaging for delivery – such as disposable bags, ice packs and foam padding – is an additional source of waste. The number of delivery vehicles in cities is expected to increase by 36% by 2030, which could lead to a proportional increase in emissions and a 21% increase in congestion. The delivery distance from a large distribution center generates more transportation emissions, and there are environmental justice issues with the location industrial scale distribution centers.
Micro-execution centers located close to consumers are not only fairer, but could also reduce last mile emissions between 17% and 26%. AI-powered route consolidation and intelligent routing are promising approaches for less polluting delivery – although these are often in contradiction with increasing pressure to offer same day delivery and increasingly tight delivery times like Farmstead’s.
There are environmental and ethical considerations related to delivery drivers. Employees are generally treated better than concert workers, who are not only more likely to be underpaid, but often have to use their own (older and less efficient) vehicles. Amazon ordered 100,000 electric vans; delivery in an electric vehicle would be a better option than driving an internal combustion engine vehicle to the grocery store. (This is less important in areas where electricity comes from coal or if delivery vans are refrigerated to keep food cool.)
What is better?
Determining the environmental impact of electronic commerce is complicated. The answer to the question of whether grocery delivery is greener than a trip to the supermarket is: “It depends.” And in fact, that’s good news. This means that you can choose what works for you, and whatever you choose, you can do it in a more sustainable way. Consider the following:
- Are you replacing a car to get to the supermarket, or would you have walked or cycled instead?
- Do your deliveries come from a local hub or a large, remote distribution center?
- Who makes the deliveries? Workers in their own vehicles or employees in company-owned electric vehicles?
- Do they ship in reusable containers made from recycled or disposable materials made from virgin materials?
- Do they deliver your groceries according to an algorithm that reduces delivery kilometers or at the time you specify?
Whether you’re shopping in person or online, try doing all of your shopping in one trip instead of making multiple small purchases; and remember that what you eat has a much bigger impact on your carbon footprint than how you buy it.