Is it more efficient for a supermarket to send a van round to deliver stuff (eg a weekly/monthly shop for groceries) to multiple addresses, or for those people to drive (locally) to go and get it?

Secondly, individual items from mail order sellers. Again, van driving round but delivering only 1 item per address, or those people having to go on a shopping trip into town,where they would buy multiple items having accumulated a list.

This is partly driven by seeing adverts for apparently green items being sent to your door (eg dishwasher tablets) and partly because I can't work out which is more efficient so I try not to order online, but would if it was better. Thoughts?

  • Hi! There's a related question here: Is buying online more sustainable than in local shop next door?. Perhaps that answers your questions?
    – THelper
    Commented Dec 16, 2020 at 7:11
  • I think our supermarkets all charge for delivery which encourages single orders rather than a single item per order. That's likely to improve the situation. Also, the delivery trucks are mostly new fleets so emissions will likely be better than average (and Australia's car fleet is older than the world average so that also helps). I think it's a lot more local than you might suspect. Also, the difference between Amazon orders and local supermarket orders will be significant, and your local grocery coop different again. (not sure of the cost, I ride my bicycle to the shops)
    – Móż
    Commented Dec 23, 2020 at 2:20
  • At least one online retailer pushes free delivery, so that cost is removed from the equation (obviously the cost is shouldered elsewhere but that's a moral & political issue). This paves the way for drip-buying one item at a time, which is not a good direction to be heading in regarding sustainability. Commented Dec 23, 2020 at 8:37

3 Answers 3


The Umweltbundesamt (sort of German EPA, I figure) recently released a new study on the "Ecologisation of online shopping" - which obviously is in German. Anyway, core findings are that individual shopping using your own car is the worst (CO2-wise) with 600 to 1100 g CO2 (for a 5 km ride to the store), while delivery is better due to optimized routes and vehicle utilization, which sum up to 200 to 400 g CO2. Still, cycling beats both options on the last mile.

Important side notice: The last mile (transport & selling) makes up 10 % tops of the ecological foot print of your product. Therefore, it is way more important to buy sustainable goods in the first place.

  • I'm shocked that apparently walking or bicycling to the shop wasn't considered in that study. Pasting it into google translate one page at a time I may have missed something, but it did seem strangely obsessed with fossil fuels.
    – Móż
    Commented Dec 23, 2020 at 2:16
  • 1
    @Móż, have a look at table 2, pp. 28-29. And yes, the focus is on fossil fuels/CO2 emission, since the UBA is an environmental agency. While social sustainability is relevant in the overall context of product life cycles, their job mainly focusses on environmental impacts, e.g. carbon emissions.
    – Erik
    Commented Dec 23, 2020 at 10:29
  • Thanks for the reply, I hadn't spotted that.I count bicycles as environmentally sustainable too... check my history on bicycle.so :)
    – Móż
    Commented Dec 23, 2020 at 23:40

According to this article in Environmental Science & Technology (2020) the least GHG intensive process would be online shopping with fulfillment via physical store delivery:

We found that shopping via bricks and clicks (click and fulfillment via physical store delivery) most likely decreases the GHG footprints when substituting traditional shopping, while FMCGs purchased through pure players with parcel delivery often have higher GHG footprints compared to those purchased via traditional retail.

  • Does the article translate this? "FMCGs purchased through pure players"
    – LShaver
    Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 23:20
  • 1
    Fast moving consumer goods purchased [by a consumer] from online only suppliers delivering directly to the consumer's home
    – sba222
    Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 23:28

Two parts or two questions, not sure: Is it more efficient for a supermarket to send a van round to deliver stuff (eg a weekly/monthly shop for groceries) to multiple addresses, or for those people to drive (locally) to go and get it?

This depends on the area where you live.

If you live in an area where the houses are scattered around, the van has to drive essentially the same amount you would drive in your car. However, the difference is that the van driver is doing an 8-hour workday, and it may be the case there are two 8-hour shifts per day for the van, so the van must support 16 hours of continuous driving. At average speed of 50 km/h (realistic for areas where houses are scattered around), that's 800 kilometers of range requirement. An electric car can be driven around at energy use of 0.16 kWh / km, but a van might require as much as 0.30 kWh / km. So the van must have a battery of 240 kWh at least -- plus all batteries lose capacity over time so to make that van have an acceptable service life, you must account for 25% degradation in the battery at least so that's 320 kWh of battery requirement.

Do you know how much weight a 320 kWh battery has? A battery module (as opposed to individual cell) has perhaps 200 watt-hours per kilogram, so that's 1600 kilograms of battery. Not to mention the cost: at 150 dollars per kWh, it's 48 000 dollars for the battery alone (a van seeing heavy use may go through several batteries in its lifetime)!

In contrast, if you live in an area where houses are scattered around, your daily drive is probably less than 100 km, and 200 km will probably handle all driving needs in your area except the longest trips. At 0.16 kWh / kg, 200 km is 32 kWh, and factoring in 25% degradation, a 43 kWh battery (215 kg) is enough for you. The battery won't weight much more than an internal combustion engine, transmission, exhaust treatment, plus all accessories needed by those, plus the fuel tank, plus the contents of the fuel tank.

So, in a suburban area, an electric deliver van is simply not realistic. An electric car is (and you can charge it at home!)

In contrast, if you live in the middle of a city, the average speed of a delivery van is perhaps 20 km/h, and with regenerative braking and lower speeds the energy need lowers to perhaps 0.25 kWh / km. That requires 80 kWh battery, and taking into account 25% degradation, 107 kWh of initial capacity. This capacity is entirely realistic.

So, in the middle of a city, an electric delivery van is realistic. An electric car? Not so much, because if you park your car in the side of a street, there might not be a charging outlet nearby.

So, in the middle of a city, a typical car won't be electric and a typical delivery van will.

In the suburban area where houses are scattered around, a typical car will be electric and a typical delivery van won't be.

Also take into account the fact that in a suburban area the driver of a van can't optimize the route to combine trips (everyone lives far away from the city center and far away from each other), but in the middle of a city, the driver of a van will optimize the route to combine trips.

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