How Can Retailers Work Toward Zero-Waste Delivery?

Meeting customer expectations is often easier said than done. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, where consumers have been doing more online shopping than ever before, meeting those expectations means incorporating a smooth home delivery experience with sustainability in mind.

Online consumers are continuing to show a deep interest in sustainability. A 2019 survey by Hotwire found that 47% of internet users had ditched products and services from a brand that violated their personal values, where protecting the environment topped the list.

As you look toward pivoting your retail business toward an ecommerce and home delivery model, it’s important to look at how others have been able to make this shift profitable, as well as environmentally friendly. But this is often difficult to execute in a home delivery model.

Luckily, we have some friends in the grocery and farm-to-table space that have pivoted their business to include ecommerce and home delivery as a focus. They have been working toward a zero-waste delivery solution for a while, despite the challenges brought upon them during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Here are some of the lessons they’ve learned:

Tip #1: Ditch the Cardboard

When transitioning to zero-waste delivery through ecommerce, one of your quickest wins will be to get rid of cardboard packaging. Traditionally, home delivery means using tons of boxes and packages, but this has the potential to be incredibly wasteful.

Jason Shaw of Hoole Food Market sums up his team’s zero-waste delivery strategy with one statement: “We reuse. Reuse is infinitely better than recycling.”

Hoole Food Market, a grocery retailer that has since adapted to online delivery, started with a mission of creating a more sustainable world to live in. And when delivery demand surged during the pandemic — from 10 deliveries a day to upwards of 100 deliveries a day — they remained consistent with their mission.

Instead of wasteful cardboard boxes, the Hoole Food Market team uses wooden market boxes or crates. This allows them to pick up the crates during their next delivery and reuse them for future deliveries.

With the constant drop-off and pickup of reused crates, there is never an empty trip, and their vans are always filled. “We find it incredibly wasteful to drive around the countryside with an empty vehicle,” he said. “We can plan out our routes to pick up empty bins from past deliveries before coming back home.”

Tip #2: Keep Your Container Inventory Organized

Zero-waste delivery works well with reusable containers. You can get closer to your goal of zero-waste delivery by building an inventory of multi-use packaging. This model works particularly well for retailers that offer subscription services with consistent deliveries to the same customers, like style box subscriptions or ready-to-eat meals.

You can lower your carbon footprint by implementing a system of reusable containers that are dropped off, picked up and reused for home deliveries. This introduces a new element to your delivery planning logistics, but it’s one that could make a difference for customers who care deeply about sustainability.

It just takes a commitment to being organized.

“Success with a zero-waste delivery program has a lot to do with being organized and being able to track your assets,” said Jeff Pastorius, founder of On The Move Organics, a business that has delivered local, organic food across southwestern Ontario, Canada, for more than a decade.

On The Move Organics makes their deliveries in large Rubbermaid bins, and smaller items are packaged in glass jars within the bins. After deliveries are made, they are picked up on a subsequent delivery, sanitized and prepped for another delivery. So there are a lot of moving parts to this operation, and there is always the possibility that customers don’t return the containers.

“If you are not organized and ready for a zero-waste, returnable packaging model, it can actually turn into a liability very quickly,” explained Pastorius. “But if you plan ahead, you can actually increase your margins.”

Knowing who has your containers, and when they need to be picked up and taken to their next destination, are important pieces of information to keep track of. This helps to manage the number of containers you lose, which quickly increases your costs.

Pastorius’ team spent time converting a space they owned into a packaging facility dedicated to enhancing the delivery program. “Responding to delivery demand on the fly without a dedicated space is inefficient, so making this adjustment was important to us, especially during the pandemic,” he said.

Tip #3: It Will Take Time and Effort. Do it Anyway.

Building a zero-waste home delivery program will take some time, especially for retailers making their first pivot toward ecommerce. But if these values align with your customer base, it is worthwhile to push through these initial barriers.

One thing to consider is that successful programs often require cooperation from the customer. For David Nowacoski, Co-founder of Delivered Fresh, it’s a worthwhile effort. Delivered Fresh aggregates and delivers more than 500 products ranging from milk, bread, eggs, meats, vegetables and health products (like soap, sanitizer and masks) from 57 local farmers in Pennsylvania.

In order to have contactless deliveries and reduce the amount of cardboard packaging used, Delivered Fresh works with their customers. “We ask that our customers leave a cooler outside on their porch to receive deliveries,” explained Nowacoski. “When we get to the residence, we transfer the items from our cooler into theirs. If they don’t leave a cooler out for us, we have insulated zippered canvas bags that we leave and charge them $5 for. Would it be faster to drop off a cardboard box? Absolutely. Working towards zero-waste delivery in the middle of a pandemic is a time-consuming process.”

In addition to the routes driven, Nowacoski’s delivery drivers must now take the extra step of unpacking and repacking groceries from their own coolers to the coolers on their customer’s porch, increasing the time each delivery takes.

“Sometimes, efficiency can take a big hit, because it requires going above and beyond,” Nowacoski admitted. “But we hate waste so much that it’s worth it to figure out how to do this well.”

Tip #4: Educate Customers About Zero-Waste Delivery.

The way consumers learn about zero-waste is changing. For customers to join you on your journey towards ecommerce and zero-waste delivery, you must communicate your values clearly.

Home delivery expectations have been set by industry giants like Amazon, with fast delivery times and a mountain of cardboard boxes. Zero-waste delivery challenges those expectations, but there are great examples of retailers seeing success with that model.

Grocery retailers like Vancouver-based Nada and giants like Whole Foods Market lead with their purpose front and center. Nada does this by eliminating all packaging from the items they sell. Whole Foods does this with its commitment to reduced packaging, composting, and water and energy conservation. These values are communicated to customers, helping to set expectations from the in-store experience to the delivery experience.

“Right now, it’s a niche market segment,” noted Pastorius from On the Move Organics. “But if we want zero-waste delivery to continue growing, we all have to do more to educate our customers about how to work with us.”

Philip Manzano is a Content Marketing Manager at Routific, a delivery management and route optimization solution that helps local food businesses scale up home delivery operations.

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