Will online delivery go more eco-friendly post-pandemic?

Photo: Zero Grocery
Dec 23, 2020

One indication of the surge in e-commerce due to the pandemic has been the sight of delivery boxes overflowing homes and recycling bins. Zero Grocery, which claims to be the first online zero-waste grocer, is joining the ranks of those trying to encourage customers to avoid the packaging waste.

The Berkeley-based startup delivers vegetables and name-brand packaged goods — like cereals and yogurt — in jars, boxes and other sustainable packaging “at wholesale sizes and prices” to keep prices to members competitive.

Zero Grocery customers leave the jars and other eco-friendly containers outside for the next delivery person to pick up when dropping off a new order, according to Fast Company. Membership, which costs $25 per month, provides access to 1,100-plus items (as well as meat and fish in compostable wrappers).

In announcing a funding round in late September, founder Zuleyka Strasner said Zero Grocery’s sourcing model has been proven this year, citing “20x growth” since the beginning of February. She wrote, “As other grocery stores faced out-of-stocks due to a mutual reliance on the same distributors and sources for their products, we were able to avoid out-of-stocks and maintain a consistent customer experience.”

Zero Grocery is not the only startup adding a 21st century touch to the “milkman” delivery model. Last year in conjunction with Walgreens and Kroger, Loop began piloting its circular shipping model, which makes use of specially-designed reusable packaging.

Many grocers reintroduced plastic bags early in the pandemic, initially over fears of contamination from reusable bags. But heightened concerns by younger generations is expected to keep sustainability and reusability top-of-mind in the years ahead.

As online buying has accelerated during the pandemic, warnings of boxes and accompanying packaging piling up in landfills and plastic pollution finding their way to the ocean and other waterways to devastate marine life have only grown louder.

A report from environmental non-profit Oceana called out Amazon as a prime environmental offender, claiming the e-tail giant has increased its output of plastic packaging each year for the last three years, according to The Seattle Times. 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see the sustainability play of Zero Grocery as being attractive enough to keep and maintain a loyal audience? Will the uptick in e-grocery during the pandemic be a catalyst for sustainable delivery services like Zero Grocery and Loop?

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16 Comments on "Will online delivery go more eco-friendly post-pandemic?"

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Gene Detroyer

I can’t help but think I would try this two or three times and then say, “ENOUGH!”

I am sure there is a small niche that would go through this trouble, but I would truly question the sustainability.

Tony Orlando

This is a niche business for the consumers who can afford their offerings, as they will cater to the higher income bracket. I spent the last half hour checking out their product line and it is impressive, with prices that are quite high. If they can serve their clients well, it could be sustainable and profitable.

Di Di Chan

Absolutely! Sustainability is only going to become more important with more time. As more people become aware of the environmental impacts, more people will choose and demand a sustainable option. When there’s enough demand the supply will follow too.

Neil Saunders

This is really interesting and it goes hand-in-hand with some of the zero waste initiatives we are seeing in grocery stores (e.g. Waitrose Unpacked). I suspect some customers will love this and will use it extensively. However others won’t due to the costs and potential inconvenience involved. The bottom line is that it is good for consumers to have a choice!

Nikki Baird
Here’s my dilemma. Society moved away from glass to plastic for a lot of reasons: it doesn’t break when you drop it, it’s lighter, supposedly it was more recyclable. Turns out plastic didn’t really price in the environmental impact of it and it’s not as recyclable as we’d been told. But that whole heavy/breakable problem still remains. I think the idea of moving to more sustainable packaging appeals to a lot of consumers. But there are a lot of logistical things that will make this shift hard. Will retailers and brands have to get into the business of “owning” the full lifecycle of their products, including packaging? I think the answer is yes. Not in 2021, and maybe not even in 2030, but still yes. But consumers are going to be asked to give up a lot of convenience and a lot of time savings in order to take this on. Motivated consumers will do that – but that limits the market and appeal. To really have an impact, it will need to have a… Read more »
Georganne Bender

This is a cool idea but I wonder if we are evolved enough to embrace it. A $25 a month fee is steep for many Americans, especially right now. Sustainability is important but we have to find an easier and more cost effective way.

Xavier Lederer

One possibility in the future is that brands/grocery stores/consumers will have to pay extra for their “traditional” packaging to be disposed of. China, which is a major importer of US waste, has announced a ban on trash imports. Unless other countries decide to play this role in the same capacity and for the same (huge) volume, this move may over time increase the cost of disposing of garbage in the US. At some point, a zero-packaging option may become more affordable than traditional packaging for some categories of products.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Merchant Director
1 year 11 months ago

Sustainability equates to higher prices right now. I just don’t think it is something that will be going mainstream anytime soon. That is not to say that there isn’t a market for it, but in a time where people are watching their money, I don’t see this expanding until it is economically feasible to do so.

Keith Anderson

Over the last 24 months, I’ve seen an explosion of innovation in retail and consumer products, from new product development to packaging to storage and handling to logistics.

A lot of the innovation has an explicit sustainability angle — typically reducing emissions and eliminating unnecessary plastic and other waste.

In parallel, rising quality and lower costs have increased the appeal to shoppers, retailers, and brands. Plant-based, circular, renewable, reusable, compostable, lightweight, low-cube, electrified, and no-rush are among the retail-relevant trends that can have economic and environmental benefits. Supply chain and physical realities may mainstream some of them anyway.

When I see models like Zero Grocery, I see entrepreneurs trying to build businesses from the future back. Will this one have the timing and execution to lead the industry? I am not sure, but I think there is a lot to inform and inspire.

Ricardo Belmar

While this is a great idea, its higher cost makes it inaccessible to a large cross-section of consumers. Is this going in the right direction of sustainability? Yes, but I suspect that going back to glass containers, for example, isn’t a long-term solution and it will take the development of new packaging types that are more recyclable than most plastics but don’t have the heavier weight issues that glass brings or the overall reduction of convenience to consumers. 2020 has shown us the power of convenience in driving consumer shopping habits and I don’t see consumers moving backward from that convenience in 2021 or beyond. This is a good start, and a great idea, but long-term we’ll need better solutions at lower costs that retain the convenience consumers are used to if we’re going to solve these sustainability problems.

Shep Hyken

Sustainability is important to a community of customers. A certain group of customers will gravitate toward this. And good for Zero Grocery and Loop for playing in this space. The next step is electric vehicles for delivery.

David Adelman

I truly applaud Zero Grocery for bringing their sustainable delivery concept to market! Although it may be a niche market to start, focused on a younger demographic, I feel it’s a great concept. It’s also a way for sustainable grocery delivery to gain market share as other larger chains focus on shareholder profitability with little regard for the environment.

David Mascitto

If a retailer decides (or has decided) that sustainability is core to their brand values, they’ll need to be true to these values in all aspects of their operations, including product sourcing, corporate travel and of course, order fulfillment. When a customer chooses a retailer whose sustainability values align to their own, these customers should be willing to make concessions on speed, format and cost of delivery if it means promoting sustainability. As sustainability becomes more important to different customer groups/generations, retailers who were leaders in the area will have an advantage.

David Adelman

Although Zero Grocery will be catering to a smaller niche market to start, I believe their concept will ignite as Millenials, Gen X and especially Gen Z as they grow up with this sustainable platform.

Well, here is a company with a clear directive to provide a more environmentally concept in grocery. I applaud them!

So if you’re sick about all of the plastic bags and containers that “apparently” get recycled, perhaps you should jump on board and support these new startups.

Some of your reading this post might recall the milkman delivering fresh bottled milk and butter to your door in the mornings while picking up the “empties.”

Steven King once said, “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.”

We have seen an exponential acceleration of technological advancements in the last ten years, showing no sign of letting up.

Perhaps we should all take a breath and look at what we’ve left behind in our wake.

1 year 11 months ago
I’m surprised that the need for sustainability is not more uppermost in EVERY comment. There is no denying ease and cost-effectiveness (affordability) are concerns for consumers, and, thus, manufacturers (and distributors). And who would pay more if they had an option not to? Still, product wastefulness has no upside whatsoever. But that it is, aptly, like “sweeping dust under the rug.” Eventually the accumulated muck is unavoidable and dangerous. Meanwhile, it would especially behoove purveyors of perishable goods to do their damndest at supplying them with some kind of recycling regularity. It is far too contrarian to deliver modern ease with absurd uselessness. Having “meals” sent with cold packaging that the maker says can be used for other cooling purposes; Just how many ice packs can one household use?! Or worse, being told that to dispose of same takes dissolving the contents with many minutes worth of running water. (That works really well in drought-area households.) Then there is the insulation that should only be used inside one’s walls. (Really, we are just supposed to… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom

Again we get into that same old problem that dooms so many (seeming ) good ideas: money (or is it ideas that only SEEM good because they focus on one element of a problem to the exclusion of all others?). Selling “name-brand packaged goods like cereals and yogurt in jars, boxes and other sustainable packaging” sounds like it involves a lot of RE-packaging, so time and money — and ironically, perhaps physical resources as well — so I’m unclear on how this is viable.

"If they can serve their clients well, it could be sustainable and profitable."

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