Ecocentric

Why the Lazy Way to Shop for Groceries — Online — Is the Green Way

It might seem decadent, but ordering your groceries online from a delivery service like FreshDirect is greener than driving to the store. Farmers' markets? Less so

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I am not a cook. Since graduating college, I’ve only lived in very large, very dense cities — Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York — and in very small apartments. I once went more than two years without actually connecting my stove to a gas supply. The inside of my refrigerator rarely contained more than beer, half-and-half and the remains of whatever I’d ordered from the Thai takeout place the night before — or, if I’m being honest, the week before. My cell phone was my main cooking utensil.

My urban foraging method of food consumption wasn’t just about laziness, though. Without a car — I haven’t driven one regularly since high school — it’s always been difficult for me to get to a large market and bring home a decent assortment of groceries. I’m usually left with whatever I can carry from the local bodega — or, because I live in Brooklyn, extremely expensive (but high-quality!) organic produce.

But that’s changed lately, thanks to the grocery-delivery service FreshDirect. I can order groceries online, and FreshDirect will deliver to my door for free. (Sound familiar? The great Web 1.0 flop Webvan had a similar business model. Times have changed.) For someone who hates shopping for food almost as much as I hate cooking it, FreshDirect is brilliant — and a little decadent. I always felt a bit guilty when I punched in an order. Surely a service that drives my groceries right to my doorstop must be worse for the environment than buying my own.

Guess again. A new study in the Journal of the Transportation Research Forum shows that ordering groceries for delivery online is actually much greener than driving to the store and buying them yourself. A lot greener — the study found that delivery-service trucks produced 20% to 75% less carbon dioxide than the corresponding personal vehicles driven to and from a grocery store. If the delivery service employed routes that clustered customers together, to minimize trips, the savings were even higher.

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That shouldn’t be surprising, as Anne Goodchild, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington and a co-author of the paper, put it in a statement:

A lot of times people think they have to inconvenience themselves to be greener, and that actually isn’t the case here. From an environmental perspective, grocery delivery services overwhelmingly can provide emissions reductions.

A fully loaded delivery truck making multiple stops can deliver far more food per mile than a single-family minivan making its weekly trip to the supermarket. And the denser the urban area an online delivery service serves, the greener it will be. Indeed, it’s not the delivery service that’s green so much as it is the city itself. The population density of Brooklyn is over 34,000 per square mile, compared with a little less than 90 people per square mile for the U.S. as a whole. It can’t be said enough: the greenest thing any of us can do is live in dense cities, or at the very least, support policies that enable greater population density.

(MORE: Ranking North America’s Greenest Cities)

But just because FreshDirect is green doesn’t mean every aspect of living in the city is necessarily carbon-friendly. Take the hip trend of urban farming — both actually growing food in the city and farmers’ markets. As Will Boisvert wrote in an excellent piece in the New York Observer last week (hat tip to Keith Kloor for pointing me to the article), as lovely as urban farming is, it’s actually a very inefficient way to produce and sell food:

A typical semi truck, meticulously packed and scheduled by corporate bean-counters, will carry 20 tons of food six miles or so on a gallon of diesel — that’s 120 ton-miles per gallon, in the jargon of freight fuel-efficiency. A freight train gets a whopping 480 ton-miles per gallon. Compare them with, say, the local farmers at the Union Square Greenmarket, whose light trucks and vans typically haul more dead weight — farm-stand, vehicle and driver — than produce. The most fuel-efficient farmer I talked to there reckoned that at peak harvest he burned nine gallons of diesel to bring two tons of potatoes 127 miles from Roscoe, N.Y., for an efficiency of 28 ton-miles per gallon. Hauling each spud from upstate thus requires as much fuel as moving it 585 miles by corporate semi or 2,340 miles by rail. Those disparities hold even for short intra-city trips: if a cargo van consumes just a gallon of gas hustling 200 pounds of tomatoes from a Brooklyn micro-farm to a Midtown market, it will burn more fuel per tomato than a fully loaded semi would bringing them up from Florida.

Again, it comes down to efficiency. Don’t get me wrong — I love my local farmers’ market, and I was even part of a community sponsored agriculture (CSA) last year that delivered locally produced food to my neighborhood. But I do it because I like the produce and because I like the idea of helping out New York State farmers — not because I think it’s better for the planet. (Boisvert has a great line about CSAs, which can be extremely unpredictable: “In fact, if you want to get technical, a CSA membership is less a purchase of food than a speculative investment in produce futures; JPMorgan should open a trading desk.”) There are clear intangible benefits of urban farming — community development, the fostering of a greater connection to the land and, of course, quality. And there are definitely problems with conventional farming, problems that range from animal-welfare issues to fertilizer runoff to warped public subsidies. But for most of us, local food is still more of a luxury than a green necessity.

The only way we’re going to thrive sustainably in a hot and crowded world is through density and efficiency. That is as true for food as it is for energy. FreshDirect and other online grocery-delivery services fit that category. Farmers’ markets and urban agriculture — less so.

MORE: Whole Food Blues: Why Organic Agriculture May Not Be So Sustainable

8 comments
ztaylor2345
ztaylor2345

I hadn't put a lot of thought into buying groceries this way. I was talking to someone from http://www.kirbyhiablogistics.com.au when they first brought it up to me. Maybe this is the way that we should do shopping. 

signoraferrari
signoraferrari

so I won't argue the green benefits but as someone with some mobility issues Fresh Direct has been a godsend and so much better than other delivery services.  Why?  the prepared foods are great tasting and I can get an assortment so that I am not eating the same thing all of the time.  I pay a fortune for roman artichokes and ordered them from Fresh Direct recently and was surprised at how good they were.  Some of their foods are partially cooked and frozen so all I have to do is finish the oven cooking and I have fresh scones, artisanal breads, and chicken potpie.  I enjoy that I can spend time looking at the nutritional values before ordering and from my living room this is easier than trying t ostand in the aisle of a store.  Finally as someone who lives in center city Philadelphia carting heavy items like laundry detergent is a nightmare - not with Fresh Direct.

AshleyLawton
AshleyLawton

A very large assumption when saying that this is more sustainable than traditional grocery shopping is that it has to be in a densely populated area. The driver will drive fewer miles delivering food to 10 houses instead of each of those ten houses driving to the store and back. It's like any economies of scale, the more people you deliver to, the better off. Again, this is off the assumption that you're in a densely populated area. Of course fewer miles and less CO2 is put into the air if a delivery truck has to drive a block away and a lot of urban areas are food deserts. But if we're talking from one end of a suburb to another that has multiple grocery stores? Not greener at all.

alexdmajor
alexdmajor

If you look at membership in a community organization as a transaction, and then abstract away from every aspect of that transaction which isn't easily quantifiable (not the same thing as intangible), then of course everything looks like a financial instrument.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

After reading a little deeper this appears to be some sort of ad disguised as an article piece. The assumptions made in this research are well, kinda biased towards FreashDirect TM. Namely that the company will ALWAYS use the most fuel effient methods of delivery possible and that regular consumers will ALWAYS use highly inefficient modes of transportation. 

Your seriously telling me that EVERY urbanite trip to a grocer is in a large SUV or mini van no matter what the distance is? That fly's against another point in the research which is that urbanite shop almost daily because there markets are close by. So even though the markets are within walking distance they will drive a large van every day to get groceries?  I mean my past experience is that it takes more time to find a parking place in a large city then it does to walk a block or two.  

And then they apply the same brand of logic to rurals. Rurals are driving large vehicles to a store every day which is even further away from there home and thus is even more wasteful then urbanite driving their lincon navigator 100 meters. OK but, if I'm taking the time to drive 15 minutes in my minivan don't you think I would stock up for with about a weeks worth of food and goods? 

Then their is the idea that the business would ALWAYS use the most fuel efficient fleet. Come on, this is America and our corporations are not exactly know for spending money to do the "right thing". At the same time they dont shy away from assuming that consumers will drive highly inefficient vehicles. 

AllisonGrey
AllisonGrey

Ordering FreshDirect may consume less fuel than driving to the grocery store, but the author mentions living in Brooklyn. For non-driving urbanites, it's greener to pick-up your groceries at a nearby store by foot or subway rather than ordering FreshDirect.

treesunrise
treesunrise

Uhm, there is a boycott and a major lawsuit against FreshDirect to stop their polluting the South Bronx, paying workers $8 an hour for 12 hour shifts, and more, see www.boycottfreshdirect.com



treesunrise
treesunrise

@AllisonGrey Diesel trucks to deliver to individuals, while those trucks idle for hours, is not green in anyway.  They are a menace here in brooklyn already