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  • Writer's pictureThe Climate Coach

Someone said doing my food shopping online is bad for climate - is that true?

In the UK, you can pretty much buy anything you need online! Even the things people said would never be bought online - like a car, can now be bought online from the comfort of your own home. But is buying this way bad for climate? Let's start with food shopping...

If only things were a simple yes or no! That would be super helpful wouldn't it. As with the answer to many questions like this regarding climate - it depends. We'll look at some key areas and outline where there are some climate considerations...

Surely transport emissions are higher when you get your groceries delivered?

You may automatically assume this to be the case, because your shopping gets loaded onto a big diesel van and driven to your home. But surprisingly it can often be a lower emission option!

Let me explain...let's say there about 15 customer orders on a delivery van and usually (assuming the routing software is any good!) these orders will be grouped so the orders on each van are concentrated in a specific area. The van makes 15 stops delivering everyones shopping in a relatively small radius and then goes back to the store. These 15 customers needed some food anyway - so whether or not the home shopping option is better for climate depends on how they would otherwise have got that food. If all 15 would drive to the same shop and do their shopping then that is 15 trips - and potentially 15 times the distance in a car vs the single slightly trip in the van.

Clearly there are more emissions involved from the 15 cars - unless they are all electric cars of course. On the other hand, if those 15 customers would walk to the shop (although I'm not sure why they would choose home delivery if they were within walking distance?) then obviously the home delivery would be a higher emission option. That's a very simplistic view just factoring in the transport emissions but I think it demonstrates the point well.

Wait, where does grocery home shopping even come from?

In the UK, that varies from shop to shop. The traditional retailers like Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's usually fulfil your order from your local store (there are some exceptions around the country but it's generally true) - and if this is the case there really aren't any excessive emissions from the picking of the shopping. The picker uses a small handheld device to pick your shopping and it's loaded in totes which are re-used and have a lifespan of many many years. There did used to be some excess bags and packaging but since the bag levy in the UK, there aren't usually any bags either. Clearly energy is used to store your chilled and frozen food whilst waiting to be delivered - but arguably this energy would be used anyway either at the shop or in your home. So assuming the store where the shopping is picked is quite local to you - there will be very few emissions from picking the shopping plus minimal from the delivery of the shopping to you too.

What about Ocado?

If however, you shop from Ocado or similar (there are a few other retailers who use Ocado to fulfil their online orders), then there are much higher energy demands for the fulfilment of your order. Much of the picking of the shopping is done by robotic devices, automated conveyor belts and in some cases even robotic arms. Clearly this will use a lot more energy than an order fulfilled through a store and as such may have higher carbon emissions, depending on where that energy comes from. This also doesn't factor in all the energy used to manufacture all the equipment involved there - which is usually lots of metal, plastic and electronic components (which can have high carbon footprint from production).

The other potential issue with this model is that because the picking is all done in one large warehouse, the delivery vans usually have to travel a much higher distance because the delivery radius from that one large warehouse is so big. This can also mean deliveries are more spread out - because the delivery radius is bigger so customers are more spread out. So less orders can be delivered in the same time frame utilising less space in the van. All this combined means that it will usually be a higher emission option compared to getting a delivery from your local store picked by humans. Relating it back to the 15 customers example earlier, In some cases, it could even have higher emissions than all of those customers just driving to their local store.

What a minefield, anything else?

Well to summarise - food shopping can actually be a good option when it comes to climate, but it does depend on where and who you get your shopping from. The other point to note is that grocery home shopping vans are a perfect candidate for electrification. They generally do predictable low mileage short journeys every day - returning to the same place in between and are not in use overnight. So you can very easily fully charge them overnight - and top up whilst being loaded between deliveries during the day. Some supermarkets have realised this and are rapidly transitioning their fleet of vans to be electric - which will obviously further help reduce the impact on climate.

The final thing I would point out is that you can likely reduce your total emissions from your grocery home shopping more by changing what you buy rather than whether you get it delivered or not.

Animal products (meat, dairy & eggs) and air-frieghted fresh fruit are usually the biggest culprits and you can read more about those in our previous posts about food!

If you have any thoughts, feedback or ideas you wish to contribute on this or any other topic covered by The Climate Coach - please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.

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