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Going to the supermarket was one of a my favorite activities when I was a kid. After watching TV all week with cartoon ads about cereal leprechauns and chocolate milk bunnies, I would head to the store with my mother and lobby for each of their products. I would marvel at the variety of cereals, chips, sodas and ice creams all of which were lit to perfection in wide aisles that towered above my pudgy 9 year-old frame. The supermarket is where I learned to become a consumer and the playing ground for my development of brand recognition.
I mention this here, because beyond being a great educator and propagater of consumerism, supermarkets are also major energy hogs. You need only think of your last trip to the store, with its bright lights and open freezers/refrigerators to imagine the wasted energy.
I do quite a bit of energy research and modeling, but was absolutely amazed by some of the facts about supermarkets revealed by George Monbiot in his latest book, Heat:
“The heaters over the doors each have a rating of 50 kilowatts. This is roughly 17 times as powerful as domestic fan heaters. The aisles are lit to an intensity of 1,000 lux, which is about the same saturation as a TV studio, and two or three times that of an office. The counters are brightened with spotlights – at up to 2,000 lux. Fish, in particular, must sparkle, so they are lit with ceramic discharge metal halide lamps, which are otherwise used to illuminate castles and cathedrals at night. [Also remember] that fish have to be kept on ice, while lamps of this brightness could fry them… Between 20 and 25 percent of [the] chain’s energy budget is spent on lighting. Most of the rest – 64 percent – is used for refrigeration. (p. 192)”
This might seem like conspicuous energy consumption, but in the store managers’ defense, supermarkets are an extremely competitive industry and they need to sell stories as much as they do products. In order to succeed, they must match the clarity of the images portrayed in ads with crystal-clear illumination of the associated packages and brands in their aisles, or at least that is what the current distribution and supply chain calls for.
The problem of the current system is obvious and it’s amelioration not far from the source. In his research Monbiot also reveals that the wharehouse attached to the supermarket (which all the goods pass through) uses 1/20th of the energy the store itself does and that the fuel used to make the round-trip to the store is 70% greater than a truck delivering the same groceries directly to the home. Meaning that if people were to purchase their groceries through an alternative mechanism, like the internet and circumvent the store entirely, they could reduce the energy for distributing their food significantly – some 95% in Monbiot’s research of the UK. Moreover, the branding and packaging surrounding the supermarket distribution system would also become virtual, reducing the millions of tons of waste associated with the unnecessary packaging of otherwise indistinguishable products.
Internet-based grocery shopping is not a novel idea, Tesco in the UK (which is the subject of Monbiot’s research) and services such as Fresh Direct and PeaPod in the US have been doing it for years. They are a more convenient option than going to the grocery store, especially for busy families and provide one less justification for owning multiple cars (given that 10-25% of car trips in the developed world are for shopping). And if you worry that I am forgetting the local farmers market, virtual grocery shopping should increase rather than retard their patronage. People will still crave the personal interaction of the market and when offered through the internet, supermarkets will have a tougher time providing the illusion of fresh produce and baked goods which combined with one-stop convenience is how they out-compete farmers markets currently.
Wide-scale virtual grocery shopping sounds somewhat ridiculous in the US and in some rural areas quite inefficient, but in comparison with the current system is a great way to reduce a huge source of carbon emissions and energy demand without completely reinventing the wheel.
Food for thought…
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