How Sustainable Is Grocery Delivery?

Carnegie Mellon University study concludes that online grocery delivery is likely increasing emissions
Marian Zboraj, Progressive Grocer
Grocery Delivery
A new study from Carnegie Mellon University explores whether online grocery delivery is an environmental burden.

Researchers at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) College of Engineering recently examined the impacts of grocery delivery on energy use, emissions and traffic congestion, and whether there might be a better way to manage and optimize deliveries. As reported by CMU, the study found that grocery delivery was less energy efficient than people shopping for themselves.

“Right now, most people go to the grocery store on their way home from work or during off-peak hours,” said Destenie Nock, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and engineering and public policy at CMU. “This is good because it doesn’t add to congestion on the roadways. Turns out most people already try to optimize their grocery trips.” 

[Read more: "10 Most Sustainable Grocers"]

The researchers experimented with optimal delivery routing, using publicly available data from the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), in Seattle. For this study, the researchers focused on online grocery shopping implemented as a home delivery service. 

They experimented with such factors as:

  • Batch size: How many grocery deliveries are made in one delivery route?
  • Substitution rate: Are online deliveries being substituted for personal grocery trips?
  • Penetration rate: How many people in a given area are using online delivery?
  • Delivery time: Are orders being delivered during peak-hour travel times?
  • Grocery store location: Is the customer ordering from the closest grocery store to their home?
  • Trip type: Was the grocery trip made on the way to other destinations or directly from home and back?

The research team found that altering these factors showed little improvement in energy usage, because deliveries replaced grocery trips when customers were on their way home from somewhere else. Even with high batch sizes of 10 groceries delivered per route, the results were net increases in emissions and energy use.  

However, the results suggest that reduced congestion is possible when consumers buy from grocery distribution locations close to home for off-peak delivery times instead of in-person grocery shopping.

Additionally, the food retail industry is doing its part to make delivery more sustainable. Grocers like The Giant Co. are using electronic delivery vehicles to reduce CO2 emissions. To ensure items can sustainably travel from stores to customers’ homes, Walmart is combining multiple orders on single delivery routes and also delivering them using electric vans. Plus drone delivery is also a viable delivery alternative that food retailers are testing.

Meanwhile, the CMU team’s data can provide a new tool for PSRC and other metropolitan planning organizations to integrate e-commerce and grocery delivery trends into the long-range planning of a more sustainable transportation system. Local government and industry could also potentially encourage off-peak delivery times, bulk delivery orders and nearby delivery locations.

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