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Online Grocery: Delivering food or waste?

This 14 billion dollar industry is expected to rise to over 30 billion dollars by 2021, and to a staggering 100 billion dollars by 2025. This up and coming form of grocery shopping raises new concerns with respect to existing environmental issues: food waste, packaging and carbon emissions.

 

Online Grocery Shopping: it is as easy as opening up our website. In fact, in 2017 nearly 30% of consumers in America bought groceries online at least once. This 14 billion dollar industry is expected to rise to over 30 billion dollars by 2021, and to a staggering 100 billion dollars by 2025. This up and coming form of grocery shopping raises new concerns with respect to existing environmental issues: food waste, packaging and carbon emissions.

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Definitions:

Online grocery shopping: This involves an individual or company ordering groceries from a grocery store on an e-commerce website or mobile application. There are often three forms of distribution: in-store pick-up, local delivery (for example from your local grocery store to your house) and shipping (from a warehouse to your house). With some services, groceries can be delivered within just one hour of ordering!

Food waste: According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), food waste refers to the discarding or alternate use of food that is safe for human consumption, along the food supply chain. More simply, this is food that is meant for humans to eat, but is instead lost at some point from seed to human consumption.

 

Food Waste:

Let’s begin with some general facts about food waste to set the stage. Around one third of the world’s produce goes to waste each year. In America, more than 130 billion pounds of food are lost or wasted annually; that is an average of $1,500 of groceries per family wasted! The majority of lost or wasted food is nutritious food such as vegetables, fruit, dairy and grains. Portions of these losses can be attributed to the grocery stores and growers themselves. Reports show that because of overstocking or poor ordering and forecasting, grocers throw out over 10% of the food they order. These reports also show that in 2015 alone, over 6.7 billion pounds of fruit and veggies were not harvested or sold by growers because the crop rotted before harvest or because growers overproduced.

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In March of 2018 a prominent study was released showing a correlation between food waste and online grocery shopping. The article titled, “Like throwing a piece of me away: How online and in-store grocery purchase channels affect consumer’s food waste” was written by Dr. Veronika Ilyuk, a professor at Hofstra University’s Business School. She found that food waste is more likely when consumers shop online vs in-store. This is because using an online channel decreases perception of effort, reducing psychological ownership, and increasing intentions of discarding food items. In plain English, consumers feel less responsibility to use the food items they purchase since they did not put forth any effort in selecting or bagging the items at the grocery store. Consumers therefore may not be as concerned about allowing the product to go to waste. While Dr. Ilyuk expects waste to fluctuate with the market, she predicts the rise of two environmental movements: to decrease food waste and to campaign against online grocery retailers.

 

Packaging:

A 2012 EPA report states that packaging of consumer goods bought online accounted for 75.2 million tons of waste, or 30% of total solid waste produced in the United States. That means that every 30-40 days, we throw away our own weight in packaging. Six years later, reports build upon these statistics. In 2018, over 165 billion packages filled with consumer goods will be shipped; the amount of cardboard used to ship these packages equates to use of 1 billion trees. One of the leading meal kit brandst, Blue Apron, is believed to produce 192,000 tons of waste per year, just from the freezer pack mechanism used in their kits. That’s the equivalent weight of 2 million adult men!

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Carbon Emissions:

No official studies have yet been conducted to learn about the impact of carbon emissions due to online grocery shopping. That being said, an infographic released by Forbes shows that online shopping increases carbon emissions by over 35% because online purchases are often delivered separately. While many grocers believe that online grocery shopping will decrease carbon emissions by cutting out the retailer and shipping direct from warehouse to consumer, further research must be conducted to support their claims.

 

One of those environmentally conscious grocers is Farmstead, an online grocery delivery startup in the San Francisco Bay Area. Their unique software uses a predictive algorithm to estimate how much food will be needed by their customers each week and then orders accordingly from local sources. Extra unpurchased food is regularly donated to the Bay Area Women’s Shelter, attempting to address the 10% of all groceries that go to waste in stores. All foods are packaged as minimally as possible in reusable bottles and bags that are collected post-delivery for reuse. Delivery routes are calculated to maximize efficiency and reduce their carbon footprint.

 

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By the year 2025, sales from online grocery shopping are expected to rise to 20% of total grocery retail – the equivalent of around $100 billion in sales. With this spike in sales, there is growing concern about the environmental issues of food waste, packaging and carbon emissions. While more research is needed to quantify the true impacts of these new concerns, you can take simple steps to control the waste in your, like avoiding meal kits with excess packaging and/or buying perishable items in smaller quantities to reduce your risk of food waste.

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GC Content Writer: Marissa Lazaroff