By Gabriella Gershenson
There are myriad environmental, economic, and social implications when you order a bag of groceries online. But how and what you order can soften some of the impact.
It’s Saturday morning, and your fridge is looking bare. The way you see it, you have three choices: you can try that restaurant that’s been on your list, you can drive to the nearest grocery store, or you can do what your younger coworkers would do: open your laptop and start filling your virtual shopping cart.
Maybe shopping online isn’t your first choice—you like to touch your fruit, see which vegetables are looking perky, and ask the butcher what cut of meat to get for that recipe you’ve been eying. There’s also that twinge of guilt: You fancy yourself a decent global citizen, and wonder if the delivery will come with a cringeworthy amount of packaging, and if those bilious trucks are bad for the environment.
But the new season of Silicon Valley beckons, so you silence your conscience and place the order.
Until recently, online grocery shopping was the last frontier—a consumer who wouldn’t think twice about buying books or sneakers with the click of a mouse was less inclined to do so with ingredients for dinner. But that’s changing. In 2016, 23% of Americans were buying their groceries online. According to a study by Nielsen and the Food Marketing Institute, that will increase to 70% by 2024. Add to that Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods last year, and a recent $350 million investment in its competitor, Instacart, and there is no denying that online grocers are here to stay. Which makes now a good time to ask—is this an innovation to embrace, or a convenience with hidden costs?
IS MY ONLINE GROCERY HABIT KILLING THE PLANET?
First, the (pretty) good news. In most cases, food shopping online creates fewer carbon emissions (a.k.a., the gases that cause global warming) than driving your car to the store. In a 2013 study conducted at the University of Washington, civil engineers Anne Goodchild and Erica Wygonik found that ordering groceries online could reduce carbon emissions anywhere from 20 to 75 percent. Where you land on that spectrum depends on several factors. Letting a grocer choose your delivery window helps; it indicates that the company is grouping orders, hence cutting down on emissions. Goodchild and Wygonik found that businesses that do this emit 80 to 90 percent less carbon dioxide. Online grocers that let customers dictate the timeline, however, such as Instacart, will generate more emissions since the truck is probably making a trip just for you.
Distribution centers tend to be in neighborhoods where people have less political and economic power to keep them away
As a customer, you play an important role in how clean your delivery is. “You can be less demanding about when you’re getting your groceries,” says Wygonik. “It will give the business a chance to be efficient and serve their customers in a more coordinated way. The more optimized the route is, the fewer emissions are going to be involved.”
SO ONLINE GROCERY DELIVERY IS GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?
Um, no. Though there is potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions, there are other toxic side effects of delivery trucks that are felt more immediately. “Trucks disproportionately generate Nox and PM10,” says Wygonik, referring to two pollutants that—unlike carbon emissions, whose effects are global—have local consequences. “Diesel trucks have larger local pollutant impact than passenger cars,” says Goodchild.
Exposure to Nox (a mixture of nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide) and PM10 can mean respiratory and cardiac illnesses for residents living close to distribution centers, where delivery trucks are constantly coming, going and idling. In a 2006 study conducted by New York University in Mott Haven-Port Morris, a Bronx neighborhood flanked by highways, fossil fuel plants and several distribution centers, researchers found a direct link between air pollution from diesel fumes and a high occurrence of asthma. In 2015, Mott Haven activists fought and lost a battle to keep online grocery retailer FreshDirect from opening a distribution center in its midst.
“Distribution centers tend to be in neighborhoods where people have less political and economic power to keep them away,” says Meredith TenHoor, an associate professor at Pratt Institute whose research has focused on the history of food distribution. The silver lining, at least in theory, is that the problem can be solved. “There is technology available for trucks that don’t have that footprint,” says Goodchild. But until that happens, delivery trucks pose a public health hazard.
HOW ABOUT THAT PACKAGING?
Maybe you’ve experienced the absurd volume of packaging that can come with the tiniest online grocery order. A large cardboard box with multiple insulation pads, ice packs and 20 feet of paper to ship two measly boxes of butter. Or foam and frozen plastic bottles to keep one lemon cool. The steady climb in online shopping (according to the NPD Group, in 2017, 20 million Americans were buying their groceries online) means that recycling plants are handling an unprecedented volume of cardboard boxes from residential buildings, while unrecyclable packing materials, like those ice packs, end up in the dump.
Sometimes, feedback can drive change.
To avoid this predicament altogether, consider limiting online purchases to dry goods that don’t require refrigeration, and sturdy items that don’t need the extra padding. (Though, to be fair, it’s not always intuitive how these things get packed.) Sometimes, feedback can drive change. In a statement to the New York Times, David McInerney, the founder of FreshDirect, said that his company cut down on the use of boxes after customers complained.
WHAT ABOUT THE WORKERS?
Disturbing reports that trickle out of places like Amazon warehouses don’t inspire confidence that online grocers provide fair working conditions for their employees. “A lot of retail grocery store workers are unionized, but moving to online puts us in a position where we are not in touch with people that are helping to facilitate our purchases, and with their financial realities and labor realities, either,” says TenHoor.
The organizational difference between a traditional brick-and-mortar grocery store versus a warehouse that fulfills orders is also worth noting. “If a supermarket is buying food from a major national distributor, they’re getting all supplies delivered to distribution centers where jobs are,” says Karen Karp, founder and CEO of Karen Karp & Partners. “From there, they are then sent to local stores where people are stocking shelves and doing other related work. When you remove those centers, you are removing jobs. The online retail sector generally is concentrating wealth at the corporate level and not contributing to economic wealth in communities.”
WITH GREAT CONSUMPTION COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY.
Still filling that online cart? Here are ways to counter the uglier sides of online grocery shopping: Tell online grocers that you want to see less wasteful packaging and a fleet of electric or low-emission delivery vehicles. Let the company dictate delivery times for you. Avoid placing frequent orders, or driving to the supermarket in addition to ordering online deliveries. And speak out against corporate giants when bad labor practices are exposed. Oh, and tip your delivery person. There, feel better?