Do Meal Kit Services Belong to the Sustainability Movement?

What exactly is the environmental impact of popular brands like Hello Fresh, Blue Apron, and Daily Harvest? Read on to find out.

In recent years, the popularity of meal kit delivery services has exploded, making cooking easier for busy professionals, parents, and those of us who just need a little help in the kitchen. By signing up for a subscription-based service, members can select weekly meals to appear at their doorstep. Whether premade and frozen or as pre-measured ingredients, meal kit delivery services have provided a way to make cooking convenient.

In the age of technology and instant gratification, convenience is king. Meal kit subscriptions are no exception to this rule. Consumers seem to love convenience as much as they love quality. With meal subscriptions, customers get fresh ingredients, perfect portion sizes, and easy access to healthy options. The simplicity of ingredients arriving at your doorstep with instructions at the ready offers the satisfaction of a home-cooked meal without the work of making a grocery list, driving to the store, and spending an hour searching for specific ingredients. It’s no wonder that these companies have performed so well.

But is this business model more sustainable than traditional grocery shopping? What exactly is the environmental impact of the shipping and packaging required of brands like Hello Fresh, Blue Apron, and Daily Harvest? A handful of companies advertise their services as eco-friendly, citing recyclable packaging and sourcing ingredients from local farmers. However, evaluating the behaviors of these companies and measuring their actual impact on the planet can take a bit more research. The environmental impact of the agricultural industry is more than just water for crops and plastic packaging. The life cycle of a meal in most cases involves fertilizers, farming equipment, pesticides, transportation, and refrigeration, just to name a few.

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The Meal Kit Takeover

In 2007 the very first meal kit service made its debut in Sweden. The brand, Middagsfrid, soon grew its operations in Belgium, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland. The U.S., on the other hand, didn’t see its first meal delivery businesses until a few years later, in 2012, when Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and Plated entered the market. A decade later, there are now handfuls of meal-kit brands, with each promising to deliver its own unique spin on meal kit deliveries. The industry is estimated to be worth about 6.9 billion U.S. dollars and is expected to continue growing.

The meal-kit industry is estimated to be worth 6.9 billion U.S. dollars and is expected to grow even more.

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The Arrival of Blue Apron

The history of Blue Apron began with three founders who came together to create a startup in New York that gave people an easier way to make dinner. In its debut year, Blue Apron sent out tester meals to 20 friends. Just two years later, in 2014, the company was fulfilling one million meals per month. The company then garnered 300 million dollars when it went public in 2017. Blue Apron allows members to select from three meal plans: Signature, Wellness, and Vegetarian. The Signature plan incorporates a variety of foods, Wellness is health-focused, and Vegetarian is for the non-meat-eaters. The service includes step-by-step instructions when the portioned ingredients are delivered.

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Blue Apron’s Sustainability

Blue Apron refers to its sustainable practices several times on the website, citing its promise to provide sustainably grown and high-quality food. The company shares that its seafood follows the sustainability guidelines of Seafood Watch, an organization dedicated to ending unsustainable fishing.

Blue Apron also discloses that over 85% of its packaging is recyclable, including the ice packs used in their packages. However, the ice packs must first be drained and dried by the customer. Afterward, the ice pack can be recycled, but not by using the recycling bins at home. Because the plastic is a #4 plastic film, they have to be dropped off at a special facility for recycling. While providing this information is important, there is a lack of detail on which packaging is and is not recyclable. The added inconvenience of having to drain, dry, and drive to a facility just to recycle the ice packs could also be too much of a hassle for someone who is already ordering meals online for convenience.

The company does explain that sending portioned ingredients helps to cut down on food waste. However, there are no details on their supply chain operations. Such information would be helpful to see how else the company is contributing to the sustainability movement. While Blue Apron does mention a few ways it’s attempting to be better for the planet; it’s useful to see how the company compares to its competitors.

Blue Apron also discloses that over 85% of its packaging is recyclable, including the ice packs used in their packages.

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Saying Hello to HelloFresh

Founded in 2011, HelloFresh began in Germany and soon expanded to several countries, including The United States, Denmark, Luxemburg, Canada, Australia, The Netherlands, and more. Over the last decade, its parent company, HelloFresh Group, has acquired other brands, including EveryPlate, GreenChef, Chefs Plate, YouFoodz, and Factor. HelloFresh employs over 15,000 people and in 2021 had over 6 million active members.

Members personalize their meals by selecting any combination of the company’s six options: Meat & Veggies, Family Friendly, Veggie, Fit & Wholesome, Quick & Easy, and Pescatarian. Similar to Blue Apron, HelloFresh provides pre-measured ingredients and recipe instructions to their customers. However, in terms of sustainability efforts and transparency, HelloFresh appears to be several steps ahead.

HelloFresh employs over 15,000 people and in 2021 had over 6 million active members.

The HelloFresh Sustainability Report

HelloFresh creates 82% less food waste than 12 other top food retailers, and any unsold food gets donated to charity.

In 2020 the company published an eye-opening sustainability report detailing its sustainability strategy. The report includes a letter from the founder, Thomas Griesel, who divulges that the company became the very first carbon-neutral meal kit company that year. Their production facilities also decreased their carbon emissions significantly between 2019 and 2020. The emissions measured included fuels, refrigeration, and other energy. Based on the report, HelloFresh appears fully committed to minimizing its impact on the environment.

Their supply chain process prioritizes sourcing ingredients locally, and food waste elimination is made possible with their direct-to-consumer business model. The company shares that it aims to ship products as “efficiently as possible,” taking routes that batch shipments to use the least amount of fuel as possible. Using locally grown food also allows shorter transport times and reduces the number of stops along the way to the customer’s door. In comparison, traditional supply chains involve several facilities that food is brought to. With fewer stops, there are fewer facilities that require light, heat, and air conditioning. When possible, HelloFresh installs solar panels at distribution centers. In addition, hydropower and wind energy are employed as well. As noted in the report, food waste contributes to around 8-11% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. To combat this, HelloFresh creates 82% less food waste than 12 other top food retailers, according to an internal study. Any unsold food gets donated to charity, and in 2020 HelloFresh donated over 3.6 thousand tonnes of food.

Beyond improving energy use and reducing carbon emissions, the company also has made efforts to improve its packaging. HelloFresh decreased their use of plastic by increasing the use of cardboard instead. Their Europe operations recently switched completely to paper packaging for rice and grain products. During these efforts to reduce global harm, HelloFresh doubled its employee numbers and has continued to grow. It’s clear that their mission to change how people eat while remaining sustainable has resonated with many.

Daily Harvest & Sustainable Farming

Daily Harvest has a business model and mission that is quite different from other meal kit companies. The woman-led brand is plant-based, organic, and gluten-free. Instead of delivering uncooked ingredients and a recipe list, Daily Harvest delivers frozen meals and smoothies to their customers.

A visit to Daily Harvest’s about page quickly reveals the company’s message on sustainability. The company shares its hope to establish a food system that prioritizes the health of both people and the planet. A deeper scroll on the page shows that Daily Harvest works with farmers to leave behind conventional farming in order to adopt organic practices that will increase biodiversity.

This approach to sustainability is, again, notably different from HelloFresh in that it centers around the direct relationship between crops and the earth. CEO Rachel Drori acknowledges how the current food industry is devastating to the planet. She points to the damaging effects behind the production of processed foods that need fertilizers and pesticides, which end up polluting the soil and water.

The company publishes an online blog that includes updates on the business. Here, their members and potential customers can find more detailed information. In one article, Daily Harvest announces its partnership with two nonprofit organizations, American Farmland Trust (AFT) and California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), in order to assist underserved farmers transition to organic farming. Making the switch to organic farming takes about three years because farmers must change the seeds they plant, change how they store their crops after harvest, and purchase new equipment. By working with these nonprofits, Daily Harvest provides workshops, education, financial assistance, and the opportunity for these farmers to join the Daily Harvest supply chain. In doing so, the company hopes to expand the percentage of organic agriculture in the United States, which currently sits at only 1%. More organic agriculture will lead to healthier lands, water, and people.

But does Daily Harvest have any additional methods to relieve the impacts of its shipping, packaging, potential food waste, and energy use? Similar to HelloFresh, Daily Harvest has also been mindful of its packaging. Its goal is to someday have 100% compostable packaging. Currently, most of their containers can be recycled in a curbside bin. These products include their boxes, liners, dry ice barriers, flatbread trays, sleeves, Mylk boxes, flatbread boxes, bowls, and latte pods. Their cups, while recyclable, need to be taken to a local facility to do so.

Who is Focused on Sustainability?

Several websites of meal kit companies mention sustainability in some capacity, which could mean one of two things. The first is that these companies know their consumers are concerned about the climate crisis and highly value companies who care about their contribution. Alternatively, mentioning sustainability efforts could signal to consumers that these companies are truly interested in eliminating practices that are harmful to the earth.

Overall, the responsibility in determining which companies fall under which category lies within the hands of the consumer. Those who are dedicated to investing their dollar with a conscious mind will oftentimes have to do thorough research themselves. Companies who take the climate crisis seriously and want to show their customers this would be wise to make this information easily accessible.

Which Meal Kit Services Should We Use?

Out of the three companies discussed, HelloFresh is the only one that is carbon neutral, making deliberate moves towards food waste reduction and actively working towards relying on renewable energy. Their willingness to offer their strategies and progress to the public is both refreshing and reassuring. Because the meal kit industry is still new and growing, there are certain to be a handful of others that will soon catch up to the standard that HelloFresh has set.

The Verdict on Meal Kit Services

At first glance, one might assume that the business model of meal kit services were wasteful of energy, food, and other resources. After examining Blue Apron, HelloFresh, and Daily Harvest, it’s clear that meal kit services have varying strategies when it comes to achieving sustainability. In comparison to larger grocery chains, meal kit services with a direct-to-consumer approach and pre-measured ingredients have been found to have a smaller carbon footprint.

A study published in the Resources, Conservation and Recycling journal assessed five dinner recipes to understand how much energy, water and other resources are used when the recipes were sourced from meal kit services and grocery stores. The researchers behind the study found that while meal kits did require more packaging, their food waste and emissions were less than that of grocery retailers. Moreover, the reduced food waste and direct-to-consumer model actually offset the impact of the packaging for these meals. Grocery store meals revealed to have greenhouse gas emissions that were 33% higher than meals from these delivery services.

While this is good news for meat kit services, the environmental impact of a company still comes down to the policies and practices of each one. They have the potential to operate without depleting the earth of its resources successfully. Prioritizing clean energy use, minimal packaging, and a reduction of food waste will allow these companies to provide accessible meals that don’t come at the expense of the environment.

In order to create transparency and build trust, companies in all industries should provide their customers with detailed information on their business practices. Mission statements on bettering the planet should always have the proof to back them up. Meanwhile, customers who are considering buying a membership to a meal kit service will have to do their due diligence in researching companies that are aligned with their values.

Reducing Food Waste at Home

In the meantime, we all can be more vigilant with food waste at home. In our daily lives, small steps towards waste reduction can include finishing food at home before ordering out or freezing leftovers for later. Planning out meals in advance before making a trip to the grocery store can help prevent over-buying food that oftentimes spoils too quickly. Food scraps that won’t be eaten can be used for compost. Instead of throwing away a bruised apple or the last bit of milk, those items can be repurposed to nourish the soil. Those who don’t have the yard space or room inside to maintain their own composts can look up local composting sites in their city. And if all else fails and you still find yourself struggling to eat your groceries in time, there’s always a meal kit service ready to cut down on food waste for you.

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