Maintaining Sustainable Progress in Foodservice Distribution

Embracing sustainable practices within this distribution process can mitigate environmental impact. Here's how the newest technology, regulations and advancements are shaping the future.

Graphic depicting green and sustainable transport.
Graphic depicting green and sustainable transport.

As the world continues to grapple with environmental challenges, the importance of sustainability in foodservice distribution has garnered significant attention— and for good reason. A recent study by Descartes Systems Group found that, compared to their 2022 study, consumers are being influenced by environmental impacts more when considering food delivery. Roughly 41% of respondents says they regularly make purchasing decisions based on the product or company's environmental impact and 60% were interested in 100% carbon-neutral options in food delivery specifically. The foodservice industry plays the critical role of ensuring the efficient delivery of food products, so embracing sustainable practices within this distribution process can mitigate environmental impact, reduce waste and minimize energy consumption that lead to greater change. 

When it comes to improving the sustainability in the delivery process, it's important to consider the background. Historically, the delivery stage of food logistics has proven to be one of the biggest challenges in food e-commerce. Juggling sustainability with food safety and cost is a constant balancing act many companies are still ironing out. Options like route optimization, order consolidation, monitoring and tracking, and the use of eco-friendly transport are among the improvement tools being harnessed today.Graphic depicts cold food and grocery distribution across the world.Graphic depicts cold food and grocery distribution across the world.africastudios/

Breaking down sustainable delivery options

According to a recent report by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), EVs will provide lifetime cost savings of up to $18,440 and increase as battery prices fall and production improves. In a similar report, they also found an increase in the future of charging availability. The report lists government agencies, automakers, service stations and major retailers like Walmart and GM who plan to deploy EV charging stations that will likely result in a nationwide charging network expansion in the U.S., for rural and urban areas.

1. Transitioning to electric (EV) or hybrid vehicles can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution associated with foodservice delivery. It also can be cost effective as the future of vehicle power continues to change.

Dana Krug, VP and general manager at Phononic, explains that EVs are already making strides, including large tractor trailers, to help in the middle mile. "These giant trucks have massive battery systems where gross vehicle weight and range can coexist with high energy draw chilling system. With this, you get the sustainability from the electric tractor trailer that offsets the existing chilling system’s adverse effects caused by refrigerants with high global warming potential (GWP)," says Krug. 

While these vehicles can offer sustainability in this way, food quantity, safety and labor challenges remain for cost efficiency. Dissecting these issues, a 2020 study on route optimization for EVs in urban cold chains found that when using EVs in cold chain distribution, "it is necessary to reasonably plan their distribution routes based on the actual conditions (e.g., urban traffic network, client’s time window, power consumption and battery capacity of EVs, and public charging stations) to rationally avoid congestion time periods and reduce the distribution cost." The study concludes that with the increase of customers’ requirement for fresh value loss cost reduction, costs can increase but be mitigated through a planned distribution route according to the specific requirements of customers to improve satisfaction.

2. Employing advanced technology, such as GPS and route-planning software, can optimize delivery routes to minimize distance traveled and reduce fuel consumption, leading to lower carbon emissions.

Coupling EV capability with management software for things like route planning and delivery tracking can create the greatest opportunity for sustainable growth in foodservice. Matt Murdock, technical content writer for LogiNext Solutions, describes this software as crucial for the future of the last-mile in food. "The ability to optimize routes for last-mile deliveries, offer real-time tracking, payments and more, will help businesses meet quarterly targets," says Murdock. "Last-mile delivery software will be the key to resolving challenges faced by the food industry for final-leg of deliveries. Getting the parcels delivered using the best routes will help meet deadlines for 10- to 30-minute deliveries. A last-mile delivery route optimization software will help businesses attain their goals." Route planning software also collects and analyzes data, which can provide significant insights into company operations that create room for educated decision making — including sustainable ones.

3. Collaborating with other foodservice providers to consolidate orders can help maximize delivery efficiency, reduce the number of trips and lower carbon emissions.

We've learned the valuable lesson of collaboration through years of disruption and unexpected challenges. One great thing to emerge from these trials and tribulations is understanding how working together to consolidate practices can be a gift to all parties involved. In foodservice distribution, consolidation offers sustainable benefits by lowering emissions, planning and relieving space constraints that often lead to alternative modes of transportation and warehousing. Earlier this year, Extensive gave a growing outlook for collaboration between 4PLs and 3PLs for this very reason. With rising costs and the environment on the mind, this becomes even more pertinent as an option for working together for a greater good.

A delivery box opened to contain fresh food and produce.A delivery box opened to contain fresh food and produce.anna/stock.adobe.comBreaking down mitigation tactics for waste management

Further concerns in sustainable food logistics center around food safety and waste. With the strides in software and technology today, the answer is hidden in the ability to monitor. Krug says active monitoring lends to ability to alarm and proactively notify the right person to correct most issues before they result in food waste, or customer dissatisfaction for that matter. 

1. Implementing management and monitoring systems can track food products' freshness, expiration dates and stock levels, enabling better control of inventory and reducing waste.

Current regulations, and those of the future, are pushing for more visibility in the way our food moves, harnessing technology and data in this way only works to improve further facets of the business. Today, blockchain-backed IoT devices can verify information about the origin of food and automate farming operations that allow distributors to track food in real time. This technology pinpoints the origins and methods of food production and, through smart tracking, can identify waste and operational inefficiencies.

"In the future, I believe with technology advancements and options available to protect food safety that can be provided cost-effectively in a sustainable solution, regulation will push for active cooling that can be monitored with sustainable refrigerants with single-digit GWPs," says Krug. "As a result, regulators will no longer accept passive cooling solutions with high waste and no control or visibility into food safety temperatures." 

But, this might not be so far in the future. Graham Rihn, CEO and founder at RoadRunner Recycling, explains the basics available now: businesses can collect data on critical factors such as temperature, humidity and location, ensuring products are stored and transported under optimal conditions. Other tech options like waste metering, or dumpster monitoring, can be integrated into distribution practices to optimize waste management. Through deploying cameras, sensors and AI-enabled devices in waste receptacles, businesses can collect data on waste generation, fill levels and disposal frequency.

"In the food and beverage industry, this tool allows businesses to measure and track the quantity of food waste across various stages of the supply chain and operations," says Rihn, encompassing foodservice distribution too. "Quantifying the scale of waste allows a clear understanding of the scope of the issue and identifies areas where waste is being generated. These smart metering solutions allow for measurement and analysis of food waste at the point of disposal to make sure that food is actually being diverted from landfills and also to inform how to reduce the production of food waste overall."

2. Education on energy-saving equipment, practices and partners can foster a culture of sustainability within the organization.

Crafting a knowledgeable consensus for sustainable work, John McCaw, VP, sustainable solutions, at Breakthrough, says a growing number of CPG and food industry shippers are turning to the EPA’s SmartWay program for insights on carriers’ fleets. The SmartWay program provides a system for tracking, documenting and sharing information about fuel use and freight emissions across supply chains. It works to support global energy security and offset environmental risks for companies, and countries. "With this resource, you can effectively identify and choose carriers that not only meet your transportation sustainability objectives, but also meet cost and efficiency requirements," says McCaw. "Look for partners with a proven track record of documenting and sharing emissions data through the SmartWay program. This will enable you to select carriers based on their sustainability performance across various transportation modes and equipment types, including cold chain. CPG and food shippers have an outsized influence over emissions reduction progress and carrier behaviors. By nurturing carrier partnerships that align with your sustainability goals and leveraging the insights provided by programs like SmartWay, you can pave the way for a more sustainable future."

The food logistics industry holds so much responsibility. A strategic approach to the everyday work in foodservice distribution can bring about cost effectiveness and build a greener future. By implementing sustainable delivery processes that rid food waste and utilize more operative transportation resources, foodservice distributors can significantly reduce their environmental impact. Anticipated changes in regulations, increased demand for local sourcing and the adoption of green technologies will shape the future of foodservice distribution, requiring businesses to adapt and embrace sustainable practices. By doing so, they can contribute to a more sustainable and resilient food system while meeting the evolving needs of consumers and safeguarding our planet.