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Why last mile delivery is outpacing brick and mortar stores on sustainability

More and more we’re all making decisions, professionally and personally, with sustainability
at the front of our minds.

But, sometimes we just don’t have the detail we need to help us make the best choices for the environment. This started me thinking, can organisations do more to help consumers understand the impact that certain buying behaviours are having?

As of 2021, eCommerce accounted for more than 35%1 of all sales in the UK. With every purchase of a physical item equating to a package delivered, and the number of parcels received skyrocketing to 4.2 billion2 that year, there are understandable concerns about how sustainable this can be for the environment. So, popping to the shops must be a better option, right?

The huge increase in the number of delivery vehicles on our roads is often thought to be a contributor to rising emissions, and demand from consumers is only growing, as they come to expect fast home delivery.

Whether the greater reliance on eCommerce will continue, now that lockdown mandates have ended and the cost-of-living crisis emerges, or consumers flock back to stores, understanding the environmental impact of both seems like the responsible position to get to.

I’ve looked at modern vehicle emissions, delivery methods and academic research to see if it can provide a window into the future of sustainable shopping practices.

A (statistical) roadside breakdown

It’s clear, Light Goods Vehicles (LGVs) – those most commonly used to make last-mile home deliveries – create significantly greater emissions per mile than cars.

According to the Department for Transport3, looking at the most common cars and LGVs on the UK’s roads today, average emissions sit at:

  • 112.4g of CO2 per km for newly registered cars
  • 194.9g of CO2 per km for newly registered LGVs

With LGVs producing more than 80g more CO2 per kilometre, it’s easy to see why fears have arisen that the increase in eCommerce is driving a large increase in emissions.

And these numbers only account for more sustainable modern vehicle models, older vehicles are likely to be producing significantly more carbon emissions.

However, while these figures consistently paint the use of LGVs as being a worse choice for the environment on a per-use basis, when considering the overall impact on emissions of the move towards delivery-based retail, it’s important to consider the whole picture.

The magic 40 customer mark

If we take the number of items purchased as a fixed number, then it’s important to remember that each home delivery also represents a journey to a bricks and mortar store that the customer no longer needs to make.

With this in mind, the question of which is the more sustainable option becomes more complex. It’s true that cars create less emissions per mile than LGVs, and of course not all journeys to physical shops will be made in cars – a proportion of shoppers will use public transport, walk or cycle.

However, on the flip side of the coin, a well-organised last-mile delivery operation will be able to deliver many more parcels per road mile than is the case when every customer travels to a physical store.

In 2014, research undertaken by the International Journal of Logistics4 sought to make an evidence-based comparison based on real-world numbers. It attempted to base its findings on a typical urban environment and use realistic assumptions for the average journey distance to stores, parcels purchased per visit and methods of transport used.

The study found that, while customers travelling to collect items produces less emissions than using LGVs when there are small numbers of transactions involved, the LGV deliveries become more carbon efficient the greater the number of customers served. The study estimated that the break-even points comes somewhere around the 40 customer mark and as the numbers get higher, the efficiency of LGVs continues to increase.

Is there a case for electric vehicles?

While electric vehicles (EVs) represent a minority of the cars on the road, their numbers are growing rapidly. The question is, would the result above be different if everyone was driving them to collect their shopping?

Electric vehicles are classed as zero emissions but, in fact, unless the electricity they use was generated in an emissions-free way, they are actually only zero-emissions at the point of use.

Most electric vehicles in the UK are charged via mains power taken from the national grid – power that was generated partly by burning fossil fuels.

As a result, it’s estimated that a typical electric vehicle charged using electricity from the UK grid generates carbon emissions of 40g of CO2 per kilometre. While this is expected to lessen over time as the UK’s energy mix moves away from burning coal and gas, currently there is still a cost incurred in terms of pollutants.

This means that, while the break-even point would be at a higher number of parcels delivered, the same efficiencies of scale would apply even if all of the customers used EVs. Of course, we’re also expecting to see a switch over to electric LGVs in the years ahead, and this would tip the balance further in favour of last-mile delivery.

Final thoughts on the future

Regardless of who is responsible for the emissions, governments around the world will keep pushing to increase the sustainability both of last-mile delivery and personal travel.

For businesses looking to make a difference, it’s vital to adopt an open and adaptive stance on how they approach their operational methodology to best tackle their own carbon footprint.

However, for those businesses for which last-mile delivery to customers plays a key role in their operations, there perhaps remains a job to better demonstrate to customers the intricacies that contribute to their sustainable warehousing and logistics processes. As we’ve seen, the more customers they manage to supply, the less carbon the process is generating per transaction, and those achieving big enough efficiencies of scale may even be causing an overall reduction in emissions.

We live for the label

Keeping the processes mentioned above running smoothly is a vital part in ensuring they’re sustainable. Label printing plays an important role in keeping inventory moving effectively all the way along the supply chain – but this isn’t something you want to spend too much of your time and energy on. At Brother UK, we live for the label so you don’t have to. To find out what this means, and why I’m so passionate about it, read my Why Brother lives for the label article here.

  1. https://www.smartinsights.com/digital-marketing-strategy/online-retail-sales-growth/
  2. https://www.shiply.com/articles/uk-delivery-and-courier-industry-statistics#:~:text=The%20UK%20delivery%20industry%20has,4.2%20Billion%20parcels%20in%202021.  
  3. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/vehicle-licensing-statistics-data-tables#all-vehicles
  4. Carbon emissions comparison of last mile delivery versus customer pickup
  5. https://www.carbonfootprint.com/electric_vehicles.html

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