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Sustainability Implications of the Rural-Urban Digital Divide

Project Leads

Professor of Sustainable Systems and Sustainability, University of Michigan; Director of the Program in the Environment, University of Michigan




Project Description

The expansion of e-commerce is poised to transform our food system. E-commerce has the potential to circumvent retail operations and provide direct-to-consumer services that decrease overall food waste and energy use. This research will use a life cycle assessment (LCA) approach to analyze and compare the energy and environmental impacts of online grocery delivery in rural and urban settings.

The research addresses three gaps in the literature. First, the project compares e-commerce in urban and rural settings. Rural-urban distinctions are critical given the importance of “last-mile” considerations in assessing the aggregate environmental impacts of e-commerce. The “last-mile” refers to the final stage of the supply chain before the product reaches the consumer, i.e. driving to the grocery store or local delivery vans dropping off a package. It’s typically the least efficient and most expensive stage of the supply chain. Much of the existing e-commerce literature that focuses on last-mile considerations tends to focus on urban, not rural, environments.

Second, the project focuses on food as opposed to non-perishable goods. Food waste is a major environmental issue. Overall food waste is responsible for ~6-8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The perishability of food is a primary driver of this environmental impact and introduces added complexity to this research project.

Third, the project incorporates consumer behavior and changing consumption patterns associated with food e-commerce into the analysis. Consumer behavior varies between urban and rural settings. Consumers have different purchasing habits particularly with respect to the frequency of shopping trips, the number of items purchased during a shopping trip, and “trip-chaining,” i.e. combining multiple activities in one trip. These secondary, indirect effects are rarely studied and constitute a major focus of this research.

The researchers will use a life cycle assessment approach to investigate the direct and indirect factors that determine the environmental impacts of food-related e-commerce. They will conduct this analysis for both rural and urban customers. Specifically, the model will test for differences in last-mile travel and transportation mode, fulfillment via distribution centers or existing retail, consumer purchasing behavior in the form of shopping frequency, trip-chaining, and basket size, changes in food waste throughout the supply chain, and auxiliary household cold storage.

The research will identify a suite of best practices and potential interventions to reduce the environmental impacts of food-related e-commerce. It will provide insights into how these services can be best adapted to rural communities. Although the project focuses on food-related e-commerce specifically, much of the research should be applicable to the e-commerce industry more broadly and illuminate recurring differences between rural and urban settings.