Those who care about the environment usually strive to eat seasonal fruits and vegetables, grown outdoors and harvested when ripe. But when is that exactly, and how big of an impact does transport have? A closer look reveals unexpected answers.
Our carbon footprint grows with every kilometre we travel, with every lamp we turn on, with every bite of food we take. This footprint needs to be reduced. The solutions are clear when it comes to kilometres and electricity, yet food is not so obvious. Cultivation methods, processing and transport take turns at the centre stage of these discussions. And supermarkets offer everything: local products and others from the other side of the world, both organic and conventional, some transported by ship and others by plane. It seems as though similar products sit next to one another on the shelves. In terms of their carbon footprint, however, they can vary by a factor of 10.
Take asparagus. Every kilo flown in from Peru produces a carbon dioxide equivalent* of 26.5 kg. That’s almost twice as much as a kilo of beef. If the same asparagus is transported by ship, the number drops to 2.5 kg of CO2. That’s better than the first European asparagus in March, which grows on a heated field and thus requires 5 kg of CO2. Only in April does asparagus grown outdoors bring the figure down to 1.5 kg of CO2 per kilo. Organic avocados transported from Peru by ship only amount to 1.4 kg of CO2.
There are similar examples with fruit. Strawberries in April, whether they grew in Thurgau or Valais, come to over 4 kg of CO2 per kilo – more than those from Morocco in February (3.4 kg of CO2). Only starting end of May do organic strawberries reach a good carbon footprint of 0.77 kg. However, even these strawberries are outdone by fresh mangoes from Burkina Faso which only amount to 0.66 kg of CO2 per kilo.
What makes ecological sense, and what doesn’t, can defy expectations. As opposed to political issues, the carbon footprint question can be answered scientifically. That’s why we worked with experts at ESU Services to carefully examine our products. The above-mentioned numbers were taken from the first analysis they performed. The results may differ somewhat from other such investigations, but the key message remains clear: foregoing air transport and favouring outdoor agriculture are critical.
Transport in general, however, has astonishingly little impact on the overall carbon footprint. This represents an opportunity for small family farms and consumers worldwide, since seasonal fruits and vegetables reduce our carbon footprint compared to animal-based and processed foods or anything not grown outdoors, no matter the place or season! That’s why we’re very happy to introduce our seasonal calendar.
In summer and autumn, importing fruits and vegetables from distant countries is unreasonable. After all, that is our harvest time when the market supply is very high. That’s why there is a gap in our seasonal calendar between July and October. With the exception of coconuts, we exclusively receive speciality products from Europe during these months.
Near the end of autumn and in winter, our selection slowly grows. We import freshly harvested figs and dates. Next is citrus fruit in Greece. It is freshly picked throughout the entire cold season, yet has an exemplary carbon footprint. Indeed, the 0.5 kg of CO2* for our oranges is almost as good as organic apples from Switzerland (0.4 kg in January).
Around the end of winter, throughout spring and until early summer, things get difficult for us Swiss. Everyone is waiting for the first regional fruit. But the "seasonal" fruit that is available in supermarkets as soon as late February isn’t sustainable. At that time, the carbon footprint of tropical fruit shipped by boat is better! Avocados and mangoes were good examples.
On the topic of CO2, we would be remiss if we did not mention our luxury item: pineapple. It is the only one of our products to come by air transport and therefore has a substantial carbon footprint of 9.9 kg per kilo. We ensure that the CO2 emissions from the sale of pineapple are compensated fivefold.
On our seasonal calendar, you can see when gebana products are in season. It is meant to help you manage your orders. In terms of sustainability, we will continually be updating the calendar so that we can offer the right combination of products from Europe and the rest of the world for every season.
*Equivalent, because in addition to CO2, the effects of methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases are taken into account.
We’ve already addressed the impact of packaging in a previous blog post titled "Is plastic packaging an environmental sin?" (only available in German). Our guest Martina Wyrsch from Tiefgrün GmbH shared a life cycle assessment illustrating how animal products pose the biggest problem. Packaging accounts for only 1% of environmental impact related to our diets. You can read more about this here.
At first glance, a pick-up station or a retail shop may seem greener than an online order that is delivered directly. Upon closer inspection of the entire supply chain, however, things don’t look quite as good for those two offline options.
With e-commerce, everything begins with you and your computer. Electricity is required to access the Internet. Your order then sets in motion a process that starts at the merchant’s warehouse. A truck drives off with many, many customer orders, including yours. In a distribution centre, your package is transferred to a smaller vehicle for delivery to your home and many others along the way.
You place an order with the intention of picking it up yourself, or make your purchase directly at the store. In both cases, the goods still need to be transported from a large warehouse to the pick-up station or store. Both options use more electricity than a warehouse, requiring more heating in winter or perhaps even cooling in summer. All the extra devices also require more electricity than a warehouse infrastructure. Finally, you have to collect your package at the pick-up station or store, either by bike, by public transport or, in the worst case, by car.
A rough idea of what all this means in terms of CO2 emissions is given in a graphic by the German Institute for Applied Ecology Unfortunately, the graph can only be found in a paper published by the institute (page 15). Organised as an association, this research institute has been involved in sustainable development strategies since the 1970s. Also of interest is the May 2019 article "How bad is e-commerce for the climate?" (only available in German) which addresses the chart in question.
As a general rule, online shopping is better if we don’t send back too many packages, whereas offline shopping makes more sense if businesses make investments in energy efficiency and we as consumers shop on foot or by bike.
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Smallholders and local producers harvest and refine products of extraordinary quality worldwide. But for many of these producers there is no adequate or stable market. You can buy directly from these producers via the Access to Market Platform and help them to participate in the market. The principle behind this is crowd ordering – a new trade model whereby a number of consumers order a product together so as to achieve a minimum order quantity. We at gebana support the producers with our know-how, and organise the logistics.
Enable someone to make their first export with your order. Please note: Unexpected events often lead to delays, and you may find that the quality is not yet perfect. For this reason, your feedback is absolutely essential. The export experience and your feedback are important steps for the producers towards accessing the market. As a customer, you are witness to the whole process, playing your part in pioneering work.
You can order from these producers simply and directly. You receive your product as soon as the minimum order quantity has been reached and the products are ready. The risk for you is minimal, since the producers already have a product that is ready for market. This sales channel is beneficial to both the producers and the consumers, since it cuts out the middle man.
Be part of the development of supply chains and support innovation! Some of the ways you can do this include testing new products, giving feedback, or financially supporting the producers in their next steps. In doing so, you will be able to see for yourself how the products and supply chains develop.
This is where you can see all the completed projects on the Access to Market Platform at a glance. You can find out where products are now available from or whether the producers are still seeking a trade partner.