Grocery delivery services are growing in the United States. The retail trade group the Food Marketing Institute estimates that in eight years, 20 percent of grocery shopping will be done online. Though it may be convenient, some grocery delivery services are more environmentally-friendly than others.
Most people in the U.S. drive to the grocery store once or twice a week - even more if they forget something on their list. That can be a hassle for people like Jennifer Purucker. She started using Shipt—an online grocery delivery service—not too long after it came to Kalamazoo in August. The company has partnered with Meijer stores in Michigan since last year.
“Being a full-time student, employee, all the different thing going on in my life. It was, at the time, a wise choice,” said Purucker.
Shipt works like this: You order your groceries through the app. A personal shopper drives their car to the store, gets your items, and drops them off at your house. Then, the process repeats with the next customer. Companies like Instacart and Walmart also use personal shoppers for their grocery delivery.
Anne Goodchild teaches environmental engineering at the University of Washington. She also researches transportation logistics. She says other than driving to work, going to the grocery store is the most common type of trip we do as Americans—and it’s not very green.
“We don’t carpool right, we don’t pick up friends typically to go to the store. So it’s an individual trip,” said Goodchild.
Goodchild says individual trips—including those made by personal shoppers—use a lot of gas for a small amount of groceries. But she says there are ways to make online grocery delivery more efficient and eco-friendly—at least when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions from cars.
Goodchild found that grocery delivery services have the ability to cut emissions by 20 to 75 percent compared to individual trips. Companies that use big delivery trucks—like AmazonFresh and Peapod—use more gas, but also pick up multiple orders at once.
“So it’s sort of like a bus in that way, right?" Goodchild said. "A bus is a bigger vehicle than your personal car, but if we put enough people on the bus we all recognize that that’s an advantage in terms of vehicles on the road and carbon dioxide produced from that travel.”
If you also give the delivery service a longer time frame to drop off your order, that curbs emissions by up to 90 percent. Goodchild says these companies want to save money. So it’s in their best interest to be able to drop off orders in the same neighborhood.
The main grocery delivery services in Kalamazoo, however, use the personal shopper model. Goodchild says using a personal shopper isn’t any greener than you going to the store yourself.
“In fact, it can actually be worse than that if the driver isn’t originating from where the product is - cause then you add another leg to that trip,” she said.
Julie Coop is the spokesperson for Shipt. She says Shipt employees don’t tend to do multiple orders at once. Though Shipt doesn’t allow its drivers to use cars older than 2000 models and probably saves more on packaging.
“If a member asks for paper bags that’s what the shopper will get," said Coop. "From time to time we do have members that request reusable bags. So if they’re sustainable in their own lives we’re going to honor that.”
Being environmentally-friendly often flies in the face of convenience, but Goodchild says it doesn’t have to be that way.
“I feel like sometimes there’s this sort of passive sense of like, ’Oh what’s happening to us,'" she said. "There are ways in which this technology allows us to do better.”