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From my home office, I can see down to our mailbox. Maybe because I’ve been working from home during COVID-19, I notice that at least 20 parcel delivery trucks come through our residential neighborhood a day.
It could be my increased visibility of the process or an increase in online shopping to avoid the stores, but either way, it strikes me as inefficient to have that many delivery trucks making laps. Would it be better for the environment for me to go to the local grocery store or to order my groceries online and have them delivered?
The broader topic at hand is called the “last-mile problem.”
Shelie Miller, a sustainability researcher at the University of Michigan, said in a Grist interview (https://bit.ly/2Yjn94D): “If you are a person in a single household and you drive to the store and drive back, that is an entire [car dedicated] to a round trip to and from the store. While a delivery truck is likely to have higher carbon emissions per mile compared with your personal car, the miles associated with that grocery cart are much smaller because you have lots of groceries on a single truck.”
Another topic at hand is the grocery store itself. Michael Webber of the University of Texas, Austin, brings up the inherent energy intensity of grocery stores. The air temperature is maintained at a comfortable level for humans and within arm’s reach — in large, often poorly insulated boxes — perishable food is kept below 38 F or even iced.
At a distribution warehouse where no customers are window-shopping, the entire building can be refrigerated until the food is ready to be delivered. There are no competing temperatures to maintain in these warehouses.
All the complex logistic models depend on how customers physically get their groceries. If everyone drives a Suburban 10 miles to get the flour they forgot they needed for their new bread-making hobby, the Amazons of the world are likely to win the energy-efficiency battle. In a different city, a person rides a bike to pick up flour from a local market and has a minimal carbon footprint.
In the age of continuous data logging, customers aren’t as unpredictable as they used to be. Many companies are becoming scary-good at predicting what we want to buy and when we need it. Based on other purchases, browser history and a myriad of different data collection methods, retailers are starting to get a step ahead of us.
My credit card company doesn’t even require me to tell them when I’ll be traveling anymore, even internationally. A representative said to me that they kind of know where I’m going and what I usually spend money on. It helps them protect me from fraud; it’s also super creepy.
The Amazon supply chain
Nobody is better at predicting our next step than Amazon.
Jeff Bezos claimed in a 2019 letter to Amazon shareholders (https://bit.ly/2ziMnaR): “Our scientists developed a model to compare the carbon intensity of ordering Whole Foods Market groceries online versus driving to your nearest Whole Foods Market store. The study found that, averaged across all basket sizes, online grocery deliveries generate 43 percent lower carbon emissions per item compared to shopping in stores. Smaller basket sizes generate even greater carbon savings.”
Amazon did not provide actual details of the study at the time.
A GeekWire article breaks down a couple of paths to better last-mile efficiency: “The EPA lays out two scenarios with two very different impacts on the environment. Under the first scenario, 30 families order groceries online on the same day and are flexible about the timing of their deliveries. That allows the company to deliver all 30 orders together using a cargo van that gets 14 mpg. This model could reduce carbon emissions by half, according to the EPA, which is similar to the reductions Bezos claims.”
For the second scenario: “The delivery vehicle gets 10 mpg and all 30 customers select specific delivery windows, which the Amazon Fresh grocery service allows under normal circumstances. Amazon has had to change its delivery policies to keep up with a surge in demand for grocery delivery driven by the COVID-19 crisis. The narrow windows mean the grocer can only deliver nine orders in one trip. Combined with the less-efficient gas mileage of the vehicle, this scenario results in more carbon emissions than personal trips to the store.”
Is Amazon interested in improving energy efficiency or taking over the business world from all angles?
“Amazon publishes no sustainability report and is the largest publicly traded U.S. company not to participate in the Carbon Disclosure Project, a nonprofit that surveys companies annually about carbon emissions data,” notes Supplychaindrive.com (https://bit.ly/2AV9GYC). “Eighty-five percent of Fortune 500 companies produced a corporate sustainability report in 2017, according to the Governance and Accountability Institute.”
Bezos claims Amazon is targeting net-zero annual carbon emissions by 2040.
Amazon is definitely investing in its own supply chain. A Business Insider article (https://bit.ly/3dOIlGi) found that Amazon has built a fleet of 20,000 truck trailers, cargo jets, ocean freighters and thousands of last-mile delivery vans. In some cases, a product goes from an Amazon-owned manufacturing facility, across an ocean, to your home without the company logo on the vessel changing.
The online retailer does plan to have 100,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030, which could cut carbon emissions.
It will be interesting to see if new COVID-19 consumer habits are here to stay. Whenever we have the all clear to go back to pre-coronavirus lifestyles, will we stop ordering so much stuff online? A reasonable prediction is we will not flood back to small, brick-and-mortar stores.
The places that have always been a big customer service pain are dead to me. I’m looking at you, U.S. Post Office.
It is still too soon to know if the 2020 online-order trend will be better for the environment than traditional food stores. If it ends up being logistically cheaper for retailers to do online-only, it will be a bigger driver than any sustainability pact would be. Even in the PHCP industry, it seems unlikely we will go back to the same level of waiting-in-line-at-a-counter commerce.
At a minimum, the pressure will be on our point-of-sale retailers to provide enough value to get customers out of their offices or cars.