Every year, trips to the grocery store account for 17 million metric tons of CO2 in the US, or the annual emissions of 2 million cars, according to the EPA. In an age where we’re more aware than ever before of the carbon footprint of our lifestyles, we‘re taking a hard look in the mirror and asking the obvious question: is our business model helping or hurting the environment? To get to the bottom of this, we dug into some fascinating research that has promising findings and important cautionary notes for any company or individual looking to get on the delivery bandwagon.
Research by the University of Washington found that delivering groceries is indeed a more efficient model that produces 25–75% fewer emissions than individual trips to the grocery store. One truck dropping off groceries from a central source of groceries to many homes amounts to fewer miles driven than those same homes all driving individually to that same grocery source. This can be explained elegantly in some fairly nifty infographics or even on the back of a napkin, but it comes with an important caveat: delivery route density is the real make or break when it comes to emissions.
While delivery as a model has obvious benefits compared to one-off trips, getting something delivered is not inherently more efficient or better for the environment than going to get it yourself. The goal is not to simply replace personal vehicles with delivery vans, as that would do little to reduce congestion or pollution, but to increase delivery efficiency. Shipping a single box or burrito across town in a single occupancy vehicle is a poor use of resources and creates a disproportionately high carbon footprint for what you actually gain from it.
It’s also important that delivery can meaningfully replace a trip in a personal vehicle, instead of merely augmenting it. We grappled with this in our own way early on at Imperfect when we realized that oftentimes we weren’t saving our customers a trip to the grocery store by shipping them their fruits and veggies since they would still drive in to get staples like rice and oatmeal, or even fruit we didn’t carry like bananas. We’ve since tried to address this by expanding our offering to include pantry staples, thus reducing extra trips to the store for our customers. Yet while being a one-stop-shop has clear financial and environmental benefits, the fact remains that how you deliver goods matters just as much as what you’re delivering. Simply put, not all delivery models are created equal when it comes to CO2 emissions.
The EPA emphasized this point when they found that companies that cluster their deliveries by neighborhood on one day of the week offered bigger reductions in emissions compared to companies who had “whenever you want it” delivery models. They also found that offering narrower delivery windows (read: more convenient) can make getting groceries delivered emit more CO2 than driving to the store. So, how can consumers find a way to put their need for convenience second to the environment, while still getting their favorite goodies in time for dinner?
We can’t speak for all companies, but we’re happy to share that we’ve found that it’s not, in fact, unpopular or unprofitable to ask your customers make a small sacrifice for the greater good. At Imperfect, we decided long ago that we were not going to base our delivery model on getting groceries to our customers as fast as possible, whenever they wanted them, no matter what. We’ve been upfront with our customers about this and found time and time again that they’re supportive and understanding. While others may claim that consumers need everything as quickly and as cheaply as possible, we’d politely add that this much more of a learned preference than it is an ironclad reality of the market.
In a time when our culture of “whatever you want, whenever you want it” delivery is adding more barely-filled vehicles to the road, we’re proud to be doing things differently. Imperfect groceries will never ride alone because it’s the respectful thing to do for the produce, our customers, and most importantly, our planet. Our community has proven that people are willing to sacrifice a small amount of convenience for a large benefit to the environment. We find this to be the most inspiring and optimistic finding of them all.