Clicks or Bricks: Is it greener to buy groceries online?

Who wouldn’t want to cut out all those trips to the supermarket?
Hopefully you’ve already cut way back, with a larger portion of your food coming from farmers markets and other local sources, but you just can’t get everything. There will always be a need for the cans and bottle, cleaning supplies and paper goods that large chain stores offer cheaper and with better selection. We are still left with that most detestable of all household errands—the trip to the supermarket.

It’s misery from start to finish: the parking space in the next county, the shopping cart with a cranky wheel, the checkout line that inches along, and finally the multiple trips from car to kitchen hauling all those grocery bags. What if you could eliminate that dreaded chore AND reduce your environmental impact?

A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s Green Design Institute concluded that online purchases with home delivery can result in 35 percent less energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions than traditional shopping. Approximately 65 percent of total emissions generated by the traditional retail model comes from driving your own car to and from the store. Even though a huge, fuel-burning truck will be bringing the groceries to you, the incremental energy consumption and emissions created by one more shopping order and one more delivery stop added to the truck’s route is less significant than if you make the drive yourself.

There are also logistical differences in the supply chain that can lessen the environmental impact of online shopping. Traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers generally have items shipped from manufacturers to distributors to regional warehouses, where they are then redistributed to individual store locations. Online sellers can streamline the process. They usually eliminate at least one tier of regional warehousing, and some can even skip a few steps by relying on distribution partners to ship directly shipping to customer homes. This cuts back not just on the transportation of products, but also the bundled packaging and packing materials needed along the way.

Online grocery shopping is making a comeback.
The retail model was full of promise in the 1980’s, flamed out notably in the dot-com bust of the 1990’s (CNET named the failed online grocer Webvan the top flop of the era), and has gradually found its footing  in the aftermath. But online grocery purchases have never grown beyond a miniscule 1-2 percent portion of overall sales, thriving in just a few urban niche markets.

Here come the game-changers.
And this time around it’s a new ballgame—we’ve grown comfortable with online shopping, the modems are a lot faster, and gas prices have passed $4.00  a gallon. Walmart, already the nation’s biggest grocer, is experimenting with a new online service called Walmart To Go, while Amazon, the king of online retailers, has big plans for a national roll-out of its own service, AmazonFresh.

There are plenty of alternatives for the Walmart averse. SOS eMarketing compiled a list of 50 online grocers including ethnic, regional, and specialty retailers, and plenty of sources for organic and environmentally-friendly products.

You can read the full Carnegie Mellon study, Life Cycle Comparison of Traditional Retail and E-Commerce Logistics for Electronic Products: A Case Study of, at the publications page of the university’s Green Design Institute.



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