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Occasional Home Delivery Allows Me To Shop as a Pedestrian, Transit User Most of the Time

December 19, 2013 Environment, Featured, Retail 12 Comments

A reader brought up a topic I’ve been wanting to write about for a while now. Moe asked how I’d get a Christmas tree home since I don’t have a car, here’s the thread:

Comments on Sunday's blog post with respect to delivery, click to view post.
Comments on Sunday’s blog post with respect to delivery, click to view post.

Moe expressed a common, but fundamentally flawed view: that everyone driving a car is more efficient than using delivery services. Researchers have been looking into this topic for a while and the results are interesting and surprising. From 2009:

Books are by far the most popular items purchased through the Internet. In just the past two years, the number of consumers buying books online rose by nearly 10 percent. Most patronize book “e-tailers” because of lower prices, but done right, online bookselling also has a smaller carbon footprint.

Like any good novel, the story of how a bookworm gets her book has a beginning, a middle and an end. A book destined for a brick-and-mortar store is printed, packed in bulk, transported by heavy-duty truck to a publisher’s warehouse, transferred to an intermediate warehouse or two, and delivered to the bookstore. Customers might then drive 15 or more miles round trip to purchase the exciting new title. A book sold online has a slightly different plot line: after arrival at the publisher’s warehouse, air or freight travel to a sorting center and individual repackaging, its dramatic finale is home delivery by light-duty truck.

Transportation is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions in both retail and e-tail product pathways. When purchasing a book from a bookstore, each household drives separately, but delivery trucks take purchases to many customers on a single route. There’s also a decent chance that the delivery truck is more fuel-efficient than your family sedan. UPS, for example, has invested millions of dollars in alternative fuel technologies, and as of 2008, its fleet included more than 10,000 low-emission, hydraulic, hydrogen fuel cell and electric vehicles.

When it comes to packaging, however, brick-and-mortar bookshops generally claim the environmental edge. Shrink-wrapping, padding and boxing each individual novella, as e-tailers do, is hardly going to maximize materials efficiency and minimize waste. (Walking to a used bookstore, or downloading an ebook, will do exactly that—but we haven’t been asked about those options yet!)

Both online and brick-and-mortar booksellers operate climate-controlled storage warehouses, but retailers usually own or lease additional storage and distribution facilities. Likewise, the energy consumed to browse and purchase books online is much less than that needed to build, light, heat, and cool physical bookstores. By streamlining the purchase and delivery process, e-tailers minimize the need for buildings and their associated energy usage. (Sanford Magazine) 

Online retailer Amazon has been working to reduce packaging:

Launched in 2008 with 19 products, participation in the initiative has grown from 4 to over 2,000 manufacturers, including Fisher-Price, Mattel, Unilever, Seventh Generation, Belkin, Victorinox Swiss Army, Logitech and many more. To date, Amazon has shipped over 75 million Frustration-Free items to 175 countries.

Frustration-Free Packaging also reduces waste for customers. So far, the initiative has:

  • Eliminated 58.9 million square feet of cardboard
  • Removed 24.7 million pounds of packaging
  • Reduced box sizes by 14.5 million cubic feet

Amazon customers have helped guide the program with their ratings and feedback on product packaging. (Sustainable Brands)

Disclosure: I’m an Amazon (AMZN) shareholder.

Grocery delivery is another that is growing in popularity and researchers looked at this in a recent case study in the Seattle area:

Home food delivery trucks, they found, produce 20 to 75 percent less carbon dioxide than having the same households drive to the store. The variation is based on how close people live to the store, the number of people in the neighborhood getting food delivered and the efficiency of the truck’s route. (NPR: Grocery Home Delivery May Be Greener Than Schlepping To The Store)

NPR/TRF/Univ of Washington

What’s surprising is how home delivery results in bigger reductions in rural/suburban areas vs urban areas due to distances traveled.  If you take the time to think about it, it does make sense. Those who live in rural & suburban areas drive many more miles than those who live in more compact urban centers.

So yes, I do have items delivered at times. With roughly 80 units in our condo association, UPS & FedEx are here almost daily anyway. By shopping locally using my electric wheelchair, taking MetroBus &/or MetroLink to stores, I’ve reduced my carbon footprint substantially over driving a car for those trips. Having items delivered, especially the occasional large bully item, allows me to do most of my shopping as a pedestrian and transit user.

As an informed consumer, I do sleep better at night.

— Steve Patterson


Currently there are "12 comments" on this Article:

  1. JZ71 says:

    I’m glad you sleep better at night. Now, do you get deliveries of (or buy) one or two items at a time (multiple small quantities)? Or do you try to buy in bulk, buying more stuff at one time, but less frequently? That does more to save the environment, no matter who’s doing the driving!

    And to complicate things further, let’s switch the labels on your two diagrams. Put the home in the center, not the store. Most people don’t shop like the left diagram (unless they rely solely on transit, walking and biking), most people shop like the right diagram, hitting a series of stores in succession, filling their vehicle before returning home!

    • It varies, the cat food we buy comes in a very large bag but we also get individual items through Amazon Prime. Again, the delivery companies are coming to our building anyway so it’s better to shop online than it is to drive around to multiple stores to find just the right item. We have an HDMI cable coming tomorrow, we were able to look at many options online before making a decision.

  2. moe says:

    WOW…way to put a spin on it Steve. You claim and have claimed many times about the lack of retail in the inner City. You claim and have claimed many times about how you and others should walk/bike/or transit it to get anything…from your post about Lowes to groceries to now Christmas trees…and then you want it delivered. And in response you talk about books and groceries. Interesting that while you pull up some ‘study’ on home grocery delivery that is, I think we can all agree on, a relatively new ‘service’. That means grocery stores will most likely purchase smaller, newer, and therefore more economical vehicles…such as mini-vans and not using larger and older trucks like UPS, FED EX, Lowes, and a host of other companies use. And even though UPS is upgrading it’s fleet, it is still years, maybe decades away from making their fleet totally green. Please take a picture of what vehicle delivers your tree or your book or your groceries…show us just how green the vehicle is.
    Nor does your study address how such items as books and groceries get to the place of sale. And sure, it’s easier and more economical to consolidate deliveries along the chain…UPS is a master at this, but while you in your condo building may have 80 units, not everyone is getting a delivery every day, not everyone is going to get their Amazon delivery on the same day, and regardless of all that, there are more single-family homes than there are apartments and condos.
    Most people do not drive to Schuncks, then home then out to Lowes then home then to Borders then home then to the doctors then home, etc. They PLAN their route to make as few a trips as possible in as little time as possible….doing the exact same thing UPS does….one trip, many stops.
    And packaging? Please….those cat toys you buy on line are actually going to come in MORE packaging since they have to be boxed to be shipped. Those HDMI cords…they will be packaged in the exact same packaging you will find on the Best Buy shelf or at Radio Shack. And they need to be boxed on top of that. (and even if the packing materials are ‘green’, they still are being used where as in the store, you get a simple bag.)
    I get that some items are just too bulky/heavy/ or whatever and that need to be delivered. But books? Groceries? HDMI cords? By your many posts, you’ve demonstrated that you get out and about. Why can’t you consolidate your trips? You could have easily have picked up that HDMI cord when you were out photographing one of your paintless crosswalks.
    You took great pride in dumping the car a few years back….only to buy one again. You tout the lack of retail…then buy on line (not only NOT supporting local stores, but depriving the City of the tax dollars used to maintain those streets the delivery truck will use.)
    So please spare us the “I do sleep better at night”.
    Oh, and I also am an Amazon shareholder….and I DO shop local as much as possible.

    • How do you manage to type with your head in the sand? I do buy the bulk of our items as a pedestrian and as a transit user but I also know delivery is a good option for us, because of where we live.

      An no, the HDMI will not be packaged the same as the cables at Best Buy or Radio Shack! Why? Because it’s an Amazon product so it’s part of their frustration-free packaging program.

      • moe says:

        Yup..sure. And I type very well. And so did the Alderman that emailed me and said “thank you for saying what I couldn’t say”. I’m actually surprised you chose to respond. After all if you didn’t even have the common courtesy to letting me know you were using my post, I didn’t expect a response. And spare me the it’s an open forum…courtesy doesn’t need rules.
        Take a picture of your HDMI cord as it arrives and all the packing materials, and your tree as well, including the truck it comes in on and post. Then we’ll talk.
        Actually we wont.
        I’ve noticed over the past years how you started being very caring about the City and it’s faults. Matter of fact when it was pointed out that many were topics full of negativity and no positives, your response was that it was your blog and you’ll post what you want.
        Then with your stroke, things took a turn towards pointing out the flaws of handicapped access. I get that…simple enough for even me with my head in the sand to understand…through no fault of your own, you’ve become more aware of the issues.
        Then it became “I”ll point out next what’s wrong”…” or ‘so and so listened to me and look what I got accomplished’, or ‘ I think they should do….. and they’re wrong if they don’t’, and then the name calling started. People, including me, called you on it and your response was “I let people hang themselves”. And sure you can say I have hung myself a few times, and I’ll say my responses may have been forceful.
        But I’m a fan of urban centers. You don’t have to convince me. You have to convince the 1,000s of voters that do not see the need for their tax dollars to go for a SLU trolley or the developers that shouldn’t just strive to meet the bare standards of the ADA laws. And in that you fail. We get responses of “they can just move” if they don’t like it.
        It’s interesting that when you post a topic or two that garners little or no comments, shortly thereafter one pops up that gets mired in heated debate. But nothing from you. This has become nothing more than sensationalism. Let’s stir the pot and sit back and see the fall out. It stopped being a place where people could come to understand some of the issues and maybe look at their neighborhood a little bit differently. YOU, as the owner have the opportunities to say ‘hey, we’re veering off topic now’ or prodding for others to develop different solutions. But you don’t and you haven’t. You sit back and “Let them hang themselves”.
        And that is the reason this blog is no longer about Urban issues but Steve’s issues.

        • JZ71 says:

          Hey guys, there is no right or absolute answer here! It depends on the product(s), it depends on where they’re produced, where they’re sold, where you or I live, how they’re packaged, how you or I shop for stuff, tax rates, shipping fees, time versus money, time-sensitivity/perishability, yadda, yadda, yadda. Arguments can be made on both sides and we’re never going to convince one another.

          If I order from Imo’s, is it better to go pick it up in my car or is it better to let their delivery guy drive his car to my house? If I’m fixing a leaky faucet, am I better off driving (or biking or walking) to the store to get some washers? Or, should I order online, pay for express shipping and get it in a day or two?! Should I get my steaks from Omaha Steaks or from Schnuck’s? What works for Steve may or may not work for someone stopping to make a purchase (or three) on their way home from work. We’re all adults – we pick what each one of us believes works best for us. Knowing about more options may be useful, but most of us are creatures of habit . . . .

        • moe says:

          And guess we aren’t going to see a post of the tree delivery or the HDMI packing materials.


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