The implications of promoting sustainable business models: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
If you have logged onto the Ecoeats delivery app in the last few months in desperate pursuit of a late-night meal, you've likely discovered that all partnered Ecoeats cities have mysteriously vanished from the app, leaving it essentially dormant. The app works, as does their website and social media, but any human activity ceased around the springtime of last semester. While sustainable platforms should be promoted and utilised to our best abilities, this service may be an example of sustainable solutions that simply aren’t necessary.
Ecoeats was created by St Andrews alumni Phil Houseley and Stewart McGown in 2020 as a sustainable alternative to large-scale online delivery services. On the Ecoeats website, their personal story mentions that the idea stemmed from speaking with individual restaurant owners who felt exploited by large-scale delivery services. These small businesses felt that they were at a disadvantage compared to national chain restaurants, which received better deals from the delivery services, despite holding superior resources and funds.
Ecoeats made an effort to prioritise the needs of business owners while using emissions-free vehicles to make deliveries. Every time you check out a meal for delivery, it tells you exactly how many emissions you’re saving by choosing a biker to deliver your food instead of a driver. They also implemented reusable packaging into their business model in the beginning, where restaurants would serve their meals in reusable containers that customers would leave outside in a recyclable bag the next day for Ecoeats cyclists to pick up.
In a conversation with co-founder Stewart Mcgown, he explained that Ecoeats initially raised capital from an angel investor, but was not able to find funding beyond that. Deliveroo also spent a significant amount of money buying the exclusivity of restaurants, offering low rates of commission and a cash bonus for going exclusive with them. This made competition difficult, as a small business can’t afford to buy exclusively from restaurants. Mcgown also noted that sustainable methods of delivery and their reusable packaging contributed to the overwhelming costs of running the platform.
The cycling model works well in a town like St Andrews, where its three main streets make car delivery unnecessary and excessive. However, in towns like Dundee, biker delivery is significantly harder as the city is spread out and bikers are cycling much farther distances to deliver their food. Since Ecoeats had fewer resources and bikers on demand than larger-scale delivery services, the operation in Dundee was made significantly more challenging. In fact, Ecoeats sent their bikers a message in January 2023 stating that operations in Dundee were ceasing, and that bikers in Dundee are encouraged to take a bus to St Andrews to pick up shifts.
Campbell, a student and ex-Ecoeats rider, commented on the lack of communication when the company shut down. “One day I logged onto the rider app, which stated, rather bluntly, that operations had ceased. There was no notice given or even any emails explaining the situation. It all happened quite quickly, abruptly, and with little closure or explanation.” Campbell notes that there were rumours among riders that the company wasn’t making much money and that the closing of operations was no surprise to cyclists working for them. The lack of communication with their workers is disappointing for a brand that emphasises the importance of customer service and small businesses.
Joanna, another ex-Ecoeats biker, attributes the closure of Ecoeats to the extra costs that sustainable brands oftentimes struggle with. It costs significantly more money to provide reusable packaging, pay drivers more to pick up this packaging, and prioritise the needs of small business owners. She notes that the delivery fee was a full pound higher than that of Deliveroo, which is enough to sway university students from it. To then shut down operations in Dundee and lose half of the revenue coming from that city is enough to cease operations of any small business.
Delivery services like Deliveroo have integrated bikers into their delivery, with a majority of their employees now cycling instead of driving or scootering. This begs the question of whether we need a sustainable delivery model if the large-scale delivery platforms are integrating the same sustainable practices as their small business counterparts. Platforms like Ecoeats providing a sustainable service for higher prices and utilising the same sustainable practices could even be considered greenwashing in some ways.
For companies like Deliveroo, the closure of Ecoeats allows them to step up and fix the issues that moved these students to open a sustainable delivery platform in the first place. Especially in towns like St Andrews, Deliveroo could cut out drivers completely and solely hire cyclists. While Ecoeats’ efforts may seem futile in hindsight, they encouraged conversations on sustainability and lowering emissions in our everyday routines. Hopefully, their brand and vision can encourage students to pursue sustainable alternatives in industries that need them.
Illustration by Hannah Beggerow