Amazon CEO claims grocery delivery cuts carbon emissions by 43% compared to traditional shopping

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Amid an annual letter dominated by the coronavirus crisis, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made a bold claim about sustainable shopping habits.

Bezos has long said that e-commerce is more environmentally friendly than brick-and-mortar retail because it eliminates the need for separate trips to and from stores. But now Amazon is expanding that claim to include grocery delivery, a service to which large numbers of Americans have turned in recent weeks to get food and other essentials under lockdown orders.

“Our scientists developed a model to compare the carbon intensity of ordering Whole Foods Market groceries online versus driving to your nearest Whole Foods Market store,” Bezos wrote in his annual letter to shareholders. “The study found that, averaged across all basket sizes, online grocery deliveries generate 43% lower carbon emissions per item compared to shopping in stores. Smaller basket sizes generate even greater carbon savings.”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (Amazon Photo)

GeekWire asked Amazon for more details on the methodology behind that claim and we’ll update this story when we hear back.

Experts agree that grocery delivery, and e-commerce, can be more efficient than traditional shopping but it all depends on the details. The type of delivery vehicle, number of orders, and speed with which a customer expects the items to arrive all impact the carbon footprint.

“By letting your food share a ride with other orders, grocery delivery has the potential to reduce the number of vehicles on the road,” writes the Environmental Protection Agency in an analysis of the topic. “However, how much this would lower pollution — if at all — depends on many factors.”

Delivery vehicles typically get fewer miles to the gallon than personal cars but they do carry groceries for more customers. Amazon is working to reduce the carbon footprint of its delivery services by transitioning to a fleet of electric cargo vans. However, Amazon is also famous for offering ever-speedier delivery times, which undercuts the environmental gains of delivery services.

Related: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos calls for regular COVID-19 testing ‘on a global scale across all industries’

The EPA lays out two scenarios with two very different impacts on the environment. Under the first scenario, 30 families order groceries online on the same day and are flexible about the timing of their deliveries. That allows the company to deliver all 30 orders together using a cargo van that gets 14 mpg. This model could reduce carbon emissions by half, according to the EPA, which is similar to the reductions Bezos claims..

But under the second scenario, the delivery vehicle gets 10 mpg and all 30 customers select specific delivery windows, which the Amazon Fresh grocery service allows under normal circumstances. Amazon has had to change its delivery policies to keep up with a surge in demand for grocery delivery driven by the COVID-19 crisis. The narrow windows mean the grocer can only deliver nine orders in one trip. Combined with the less efficient gas mileage of the vehicle, this scenario results in more carbon emissions than personal trips to the store.

A shopper’s mode of transportation is also key. Driving alone to the grocery store results in a large carbon footprint, but walking, biking, or taking public transit are among the most environmentally friendly ways to get groceries. Grocery delivery typically falls somewhere in the middle.

Consumers can make the process more sustainable by offering flexible delivery times and ordering all of their items at once, rather than placing separate orders throughout the week. Companies that offer grocery delivery can switch to more fuel-efficient or electric vehicles, as Amazon is doing under its sustainability initiative.

Amazon launched the Climate Pledge last year, promising to reach carbon neutrality by 2040 and asking other companies to make the same commitment. Amazon is purchasing 100,000 electric delivery vans from Rivian as part of its sustainability program.

“Amazon faces significant challenges in achieving this goal because we don’t just move information around — we have extensive physical infrastructure and deliver more than 10 billion items worldwide a year,” Bezos wrote in the letter. “And we believe if Amazon can get to net zero carbon ten years early, any company can — and we want to work together with all companies to make it a reality.

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