Food Logistics

Ordering Food Online in a Sustainable Way

In a recent radio interview, I was asked how customers can order food or grocery products online in a sustainable manner. While obviously the choice of provider and products has a huge influence on sustainability, how products are delivered further plays a vital role, particularly in the context of last mile deliveries. For this post, we focus on the latter and take food coops in Austria as an example.

Food coops in Austria are private groups who jointly order food products, mainly from local producers. Planning related logistics activities is challenging, mainly due to infrequent orders and small quantities. As sustainability is often a main driver of such initiatives, let’s analyze how one can make related logistics operations greener.

To investigate and quantify this question in detail, a model-driven decision support system was developed in recent work. It combines simulation techniques to generate demand with optimization procedures to model daily logistics operations. Food quality models are further integrated to model quality changes throughout handling, storage and transport operations. As a sample setting, we will focus on the situation where food coops can either pick up products themselves from regional producers or have them delivered.

Computational experiments show that in order to assist sustainable food orders, the following points need be considered closely:

  1. Few orders of large quantity: The easiest way to reduce travel distances and related emissions is to limit the number of orders by increasing the quantity shipped. This may, however, result in increased food waste (see Point 5) if done poorly.
  2. Determining the selected time window: This can potentially have two effects: i) it allows providers to bundle multiple shipments to the same area, and, ii) ordering at off-peak times may contribute to reducing traffic-related emissions. In general, the longer the selected time window is, the easier it will be for the provider to reduce travel distances.
  3. Cooperate with others: This point is closely related to #1 and #2 and was the focus of our recent work. To increase order quantity, one can cooperate with other food coops to jointly place orders at the same time or to share surplus inventory. In a private setting, it could mean to order food jointly with your neighbors or colleagues to reduce the number of trips required to serve your area.
  4. Consider your mode of transport choices: If you pick up items by public transport or with cargo bikes (see related post on this topic) both traffic and emission can be reduced.
  5. Limit food waste as much as possible: While difficult in many cases, applying a few simple principles can often achieve major improvements. This includes good planning to order the correct quantities, an efficient inventory management and correct storage conditions to limit quality losses and strategies to react sustainable if surplus inventories occur, e.g., by either relocating inventory or adjusting consumption.

– Fikar, C, Leither M (2020) A decision support system to facilitate collaborative supply of food cooperatives. Production Planning and Control, in press.
– Estrada-Moreno, A, Fikar, C, Juan, A, Hirsch, P (2019) A Biased-Randomized Algorithm for Redistribution of Perishable Food Inventories in Supermarket Chains. International Transactions in Operational Research 26(6), 2077-2095.
– Serrano-Hernandez, A, Faulin, J, Hirsch, P, Fikar, C (2018) Agent-based simulation for horizontal cooperation in logistics and transportation: From the individual to the grand coalition. Simulation Modelling Practice and Theory, 85, 47-59. DOI:

Image: BOKU

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