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How sustainable is it to have your groceries delivered? Or can we do better?

2 May 2022
From our ‘Thinking outside the box’ series
Mark Raadsen looks at the environmental impacts of an activity many of us have embraced since the pandemic started - online grocery shopping.

In the past two years we have all become familiar with online shopping, whether we intended to or not. For some of us this has been a revelation while for others this has been an experience out of necessity rather than preference. As a consumer myself, I found myself ordering my groceries online for the better part of 2021. While hesitant about this change in the beginning, our household has now fully embraced this new approach. While it requires a bit more planning, this is easily offset by the amount of time and effort is saves. However, one lingering sense of guilt has plagued us throughout this “indulgence” and that is the now omnipresent fleet of (diesel) trucks driving around the city. This is now reality rather than me doing my grocery shopping either by bicycle (yes, I did do that, maybe it is because I am Dutch), public transport, or car. So, how sustainable is it to have your groceries delivered?

It turns out – as always – that it depends, but in Australia, in a capital city, having your groceries delivered turns out to be a reasonably “green” thing to do. It is not hard to see why. A dedicated delivery truck optimises it route to visit as many customers in the shortest possible time without returning to the depot (this is called chaining), whereas us regular humans create trips from our house to the shop and back, which is as inefficient as the delivery truck picking up only our groceries, deliver them, drive back, pick up the next customer’s groceries, deliver them, etc. etc. So, as long as you do not order every toothpick separately you might be inclined to think you can put your conscience at ease. Further, not having groceries displayed in your local supermarket but arriving from a warehouse directly saves energy, which is of course also great news for the planet.

Despite these benefits, there are some important caveats (guard, n.d.). Often, the packaging used in online (grocery) shopping is still atrocious and generates a lot of unnecessary waste. In the early days of our online grocery endeavours, we often found our cupboard spilling over with plastic bags from our most recent deliveries.  Fortunately, in Australia, most grocers will take back your plastic bags with the next delivery and the bags used are no longer single use, so that is a step forward. Do note that improvement here is possible, in European countries, often you pay a small bond for your first delivery and get sturdy crates instead of plastic bags, these are more durable, carry more items, and are stackable, so this would benefit both customer and retailer. When you return the crates, you receive your bond back. A simple yet efficient system.

Another issue here are the – typically - much lower standards regarding emissions and fuel efficiency for trucks in comparison with cars, as recently pointed out by the US environmental protection agency (EPA, n.d.). This can remove a significant portion, if not all, of the discussed benefits depending on the context. To date, we as consumers have no way of knowing how (non-)polluting the used truck fleets are. In addition, in the not so near future, most of us will own a very fuel-efficient car, a hybrid, or fully electric vehicle (maybe you already do). In this case, most of the discussed benefits disappear. In most commercial sectors customers have the option to “go green”. When you purchase your energy, you often can pay a little bit more but are guaranteed that energy is generated using sustainable sources. When you fly, you can buy off your carbon footprint. In those situations, the cost of the sustainable option is typically a bit more expensive than the default, so you pay a little bit extra. In this situation, I doubt the cost would be much higher in the long term. For example, if (online) grocers were to operate a fleet of electric trucks, they would save on maintenance, fuel, and possibly tax (although Australia is no front-runner in this regard). Still, if it would not (yet) be cost-effective, there would be an indirect benefit of a free marketing campaign because every electric truck would advertise its sustainable origins for every passer-by: “Look at me, I am 100% emission free”. If that still does not outweigh the costs, we - the customers – could be given the option to pay a little bit extra to have our delivery mileage offset by electric kms for example, similar to our energy, or flight purchases (clearly this can be another truck, as you also do not receive “your” green energy that you buy either). This could be a win-win situation: uninterested customers are none the worse off, sustainably oriented customers would be better off, while the grocer improves their brand image in a cost neutral way. So, I am hopeful that for my next order – in the not-too-distant future - a have a new box to tick to support a more sustainable online shopping experience.

(Epa, n.d.) : https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/what-if-more-people-bought-groceries-online-instead-driving-store

(guard, n.d.) : https://www.theguardian.com/news/shortcuts/2020/feb/17/hidden-costs-of-online-delivery-environment