It’s easier for you than for the planet
With COVID-19 and the fear that surrounds us when we make the regular food purchases that we once did, grocery delivery companies have been on the rise. Last week, I had taken a look at a popular food delivery service called Hello Fresh (Check it out here https://voiz-xao3377.quip.com/jwoaAGAufLZH). To my surprise, I learned that having the ingredients perfectly portioned and delivered to your house left a significantly smaller carbon footprint on the environment than making your own trip to the grocery store. So I wondered: does a grocery delivery service also lessen the carbon footprint? Today, we’ll find out the answer by taking a look at Instacart, a same-day grocery delivery and pick-up service that has been rapidly expanding during the pandemic.
Instacart partners with local retailers to have your groceries delivered to you but to measure how local they were, I decided to do a quick search in my area, Toronto, Canada. I found that the only retailers they worked with were large and established corporations such as Costco, Walmart, Shoppers Drug Mart, and Staples. Given the amount of local food markets that have gone out of business these last couple of months, I’m almost shocked that Instacart hasn’t used their platform to help alleviate those that are struggling from the very same conditions that are fuelling their success. Furthermore, there was no information on the website as to how they source their retailers and what kind of criteria they look for. However, taking a quick look at Costco’s lack of commitment to sustainability reaffirmed the inkling I had that Instacart was looking for partners that are most profitable. While Costco had publicly stated on their website that they were working towards lessening their carbon footprint, the tons of carbon dioxide emitted has only steadily increased by 50 000 tons each year to meet their growing demand.
The idea of Instacart is innovating but its execution? Not so much.
It’s important to note that there was also no information found on their website related to their own sustainability/corporate social responsibility goals. It was only through sourcing different blogs that shared their experiences with Instacart where I was able to find that their groceries were packaged in plastic bags. Instacart does not offer any options for reusable bags, unless you purchased your own from their website for $1 which is ridiculously expensive when most people have them lying around in their house, or even cardboard boxes. The only instance I had found a more eco-friendly packaging available was when someone had requested their shopper to bring a reusable bag in exchange for a higher tip.
Overall, it’s unsettling to know that so many people use Instacart without knowing how they source their retailers, the work conditions of their workers, and their effect on the environment. So far, Instacart pales in comparison to Hello Fresh’s transparency regarding their carbon footprint, sales per year, and progress on their goals. Instacart seems to have little concern about the environment, despite having many changes available that they could easily implement to their app to make their business more eco-friendly.
My initial thoughts going into this review was that Instacart would be better for the environment than my own trip to the grocery store. There was a report published by the UK that found a regular delivery route with 120 drops used one-twentieth of the CO2 emitted from an individual traveling to the store. But I was disappointed to find it was quite the opposite of my expectations. Rather than delivering with trucks on an optimized routes, Instacart delivers their groceries with gig workers who travel to the grocery store, pick up, package and deliver them to your house in their own car. To better illustrate what shoppers do, you can think of them as the grocery store version of Uber drivers. While there aren’t exact numbers published by Instacart or any academic studies, Instacart’s model and promise of same day delivery doesn’t seem promising. By using their own cars, there is no guarantee that the deliveries are fuel-efficient or electronic. To add on, when I was trying to place an order at Costco, I wasn’t able to select which Costco store I wanted the groceries from. This made me question the distance that a shopper was traveling to get from Costco to my house and it’s quite possible that the distance travelled by the shopper might be even greater than a trip I would have made on my own. Adding in the fact that Instacart training is comprised of a couple videos explaining how the app works, new shoppers are likely not optimizing their routes as they adjust to a new working environment. Better training, more eco-friendly vehicles, cargo bike deliveries - there are many solutions out there to remedy Instacart''s large carbon footprint but little implementation.
As Instacart grew, it provided more than 500 000 jobs in the last year for shoppers. However, many veterans and current shoppers of the company have spoken up about the work conditions that took a toll in exchange for scaling up the company. Let’s also keep in mind that a lot of new hires during the beginning of the pandemic were economically vulnerable after being laid off. In March 2020, Instacart announced a coronavirus sick pay policy for workers that had been affected by COVID-19, but some have said that it was difficult to receive the compensation. One example is the widely circulated story of Instacart worker, Alejo, who had actively worked as a shopper for three months and fell ill to COVID-19 in March, eventually being put on a ventilator. Instacart had denied his claim and hadn’t provided any assistance to him or his family who had later contracted COVID-19 as well. It’s hard to trust the shiny “2020 Best Company Happiness” and “2020 Best Company Work-Life Balance” awards decorating their website when shoppers were given little to no protective gear as they navigated through crowded supermarkets. Fast forward almost a year later and Instacart’s insincerity towards their shoppers is only exacerbated. Just last week, Instacart had fired 1900 part time workers, including its union workers who were some of the first in the tech industry to unionize and bargain for better wages and work conditions. Instacart has denied any claims of union-busting, which only further exemplifies the power imbalance in this company.
On the surface, Instacart is perfect. It meets the needs of overworked parents that don’t have the time to make it to the grocery store, of busy people that would rather save themselves the trip and risk of coronavirus. But every person that vouches for this convenience, there is another whose day is spent rushing from one end of the city to the next trying to make their ends meet. Instacart’s treatment of their workers and environmental footprint deserves to be scrutinized, especially when we know there is so much room to change.