Is Online Grocery Shopping Better for the Planet?

By Maddie Stone

This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The coronavirus pandemic has transformed how Americans get our food. We’re no longer going to restaurants; we’re limiting our trips to the grocery store. Many of us are, for the first time, ordering groceries online. That’s causing huge spikes in demand on e-commerce sites like Amazon, which has moved quickly to expand its grocery delivery services and transform Whole Foods Markets into fulfillment centers for online orders.

But if Amazon consolidating control over yet another sector of the economy during a crisis makes you uncomfortable, Jeff Bezos would like to offer a reframe: Actually, buying your groceries online is better for the planet.

That, at least, is the striking claim made in Bezos’ annual letter to Amazon shareholders, which the e-commerce behemoth’s CEO released last month. In a section on Amazon’s climate impact, Bezos asserts that shopping online is “inherently” more efficient, from a carbon emissions perspective, than going to the store. He references a study conducted by Amazon that found that ordering Whole Foods groceries online reduces the carbon emissions associated with every item in a grocery basket by 43 percent compared with driving to Whole Foods.

So, should you give up your last real reason to enter public spaces and start one-click ordering those potatoes?

Not necessarily. Even though Amazon has yet to publicly release the study in question (we’ve asked), several experts Grist spoke with said that on average, ordering online often reduces the carbon footprint of grocery shopping. But the word average is key. This finding doesn’t scale down to the individual level neatly, and the way you get your food might be very climate-friendly already, no matter what the Amazon man says. What’s more, when it comes to the climate impact of our food choices, what we eat is far more important than how we get it. And there are other ethical considerations at play here beyond the carbon footprint of your meal.

According to Shelie Miller, a sustainability researcher at the University of Michigan who has studied the environmental impact of different forms of grocery shopping, when researchers compare shopping online to shopping at a brick-and-mortar outlet, what they’re mainly talking about is the so-called “last-mile problem.”

For groceries, the last-mile problem refers to how food makes that final leg in its journey from farm to table, whether it’s coming from Trader Joe’s or an Amazon warehouse. It’s a step where a lot of carbon emissions can occur, especially if you’re hopping in your SUV and driving 5 miles to pick up ingredients for dinner. In that case, it might be more efficient for a delivery truck to drop off the ingredients for you, especially if that truck is already making dozens of other trips in your neighborhood.

“If you are a person in a single household and you drive to the store and drive back, that is an entire car that is dedicated to a round trip to and from the store,” Miller said. 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,” Miller said.

Food that comes straight from a distribution hub also avoids all of the carbon emissions associated with the grocery store itself. Michael Webber, a professor of energy resources at the University of Texas, Austin, notes that grocery stores tend to be “very energy intensive” compared with warehouses. That’s because their operators have to create a comfortable 72 degree F environment for shoppers to walk around in while simultaneously keeping perishable food items at a much chillier 38 degrees F.