Riverford Wicked Leeks

To reduce our transport emissions, we are:

  • Encouraging people to eat seasonal UK veg, especially in our 100% UK veg box.
  • Home-growing 72% of all the veg we sell.
  • Importing via road and sea; we never use airfreight.
  • Expanding our range and delivering to customers’ homes to reduce the number of vehicles on the road.
  • Making our vehicles as fuel efficient as possible, by buying the highest spec vans and trucks, training our drivers, carefully planning their routes and making sure the vehicles rarely travel empty.

That’s a short summary... for more details, read below.

Food miles alone are a poor measure of environmental impact. There are many more sophisticated factors that have to be taken into account: the variance in greenhouse gas emissions from different forms of transport, the volume of food a vehicle is carrying, and the different impact resulting from growing in different areas.

We undertook a 2-year study with the University of Exeter called the Riverford Sustainable Development Project. Some of the biggest questions they helped us tackle were about food transportation: when it’s justified, and the best way to go about it. Here are some of the conclusions that came out of the Project, and how we’ve put that information into practice across the business.

Celebrating UK veg

We do our best to inform and enthuse about what’s in season and to provide the widest range our climate will allow. In 2016, 72% of all the veg we sell will be UK grown. We extend seasons using polytunnels that don’t use artificial heat or light, and campaign for little-eaten British veg such as cardoons and spring greens. For the converted, we offer our 100% UK veg box.

Veg delivery van
Organic veg box

Local isn’t always best!

In an ideal world, we would all eat with our local season. In the real world, however: bananas, citrus, a 12-month supply of tomatoes, peppers and apples… these things can’t be grown naturally in the UK, but have come to be viewed as non-negotiable essentials in most households. Given this reality, we’ve done a lot of research to allow us to make intelligent and informed compromises.

There are two options: growing out-of-season produce in this country using artificial heat, or importation. The University of Exeter concluded that importation by road is by far the greener choice.

Take the example of tomatoes. The huge amounts of heat used in glass hothouses is produced by burning gas or oil. For every kilo of tomatoes grown in this way, 2-3 kilos of CO2 are released into the atmosphere.

When we can’t grow tomatoes at home without heat, we truck them over from Spain. This uses just a tenth of the carbon compared with growing them in the UK using heat. It’s not perfect, but it is the least damaging option.

Home deliveries – more efficient than driving yourself

Most studies of food distribution show that the final step, to customer’s doors, is the most energy-consuming stage of food’s journey. Although distances are short, loads tend to be small. The University of Exeter showed that because home delivery consolidates many people’s shopping journeys into one, it is generally more efficient than going shopping in your own car. Riverford compared even more favourably than other home delivery services. We do everything we can to minimise emissions from our vans (see below).

Veg delivery van
Organic veg box

Reducing our transport emissions

The Project found that transport from growers’ gate to customers’ doorstep accounted for 60% of our total carbon footprint. 21% is the result of imports (ships 15% and trucks 6%), and 39% is UK transport (lorries 13% and vans 26%).

transport emmisions pie chart

It’s a hard area to make savings, but here’s what we’re doing:

  • No airfreight. We never use airfreight, which causes 40-50 times the CO2 emissions of sea freight.
  • Using sea freight wherever possible. Road freight is 3 times worse in terms of emissions.
  • Back-loaded lorries. Where we must use road freight, the lorries are nearly always back-loaded, so that they don’t travel empty at any stage.
  • Reducing HGV miles. Our network of regional farms, running in partnership with local farmers, has allowed us to reduce the average distance a Riverford box travels by HGV to 125 miles – compared with an average of 500 miles when we were still supplying to supermarkets. Read more about our sister farms.
  • Fuel-efficient vehicles. We buy the highest spec trucks for maximum fuel efficiency. All our vans are now Euro 6 compliant, and use AdBlue, a urea solution which is added to fuel to further reduce emissions.
  • Organising routes to minimise distance. In the last couple of years, we’ve really got the hang of carefully planning our weekly routes and order sequences to minimise the distance travelled per drop. We may be less flexible than online supermarkets that let you choose a delivery time, but our deliveries are many times more energy efficient.
  • Our ‘green page’ of guidance. We researched various options for minimising our emissions and put them together into a ‘green page’ of guidance, ranging from simply checking tyre pressures on a regular basis to which height and length of van to choose depending on the delivery area.
  • Electric vans? We’re trialling the use of electric vans for our deliveries around London as of November 2019, and aim to convert more than 70% of our in-house delivery fleet to electric vehicles.

Increasing our range

This might not, at first glance, appear to be related to the environment – but bear with us.

In our heart of hearts, we like to sell what we really know about: the veg that grows in the fields around us. However, if every local specialist had individual distribution, it would be an environmental disaster. Veg man, butcher, baker, dairy, fish man… that’s a lot of vans on the road. A sensible distribution system has to accept a degree of consolidation.

We used to be adamant that we did not want to become an online grocer and would stick to what we knew. Our policy is now one of pragmatic compromise: we have slowly increased the range that we deliver to cover as many of the main food categories as we can without losing sight of the founding ethics of the business.

Food transportation

When is it justified, and
what’s the best way?