receives compensation from some of the companies listed on this page. Advertising Disclosure


Shipping and the Environment – What Businesses Need to Know

Content sponsored in partnership with Pitney Bowes

Shipping adds significantly to the carbon footprints of both consumers and businesses. Here's what businesses can do to reduce their CO2 emissions.

Whether it's a product or a commodity, nearly everything a consumer owns was transported thousands of miles to reach them. This includes the phone in your pocket, the coffee in your pantry, the fuel you pump into your car, the car itself and the clothes you wear, just to name a few things. 

For most people, the global shipping network is invisible. Consumable goods are ordered and they arrive – almost magically – in just a few weeks, if not a couple of days. This phenomenon is known in the industry as "sea blindness;" that is, the general public remains largely unaware of the vast impact shipping has on our everyday life despite the fact that roughly 90% of the world's trade happens on water. 

However, not everyone lives near the coast, so shipping is only part of the story. Once cargo makes it off a ship, it is loaded onto trucks, trains or airplanes to embark on the next phase of its journey before being distributed to manufacturers, retailers, warehouses and, finally, consumers. The objects you use every day are more than likely harvested, manufactured, assembled or sourced from raw materials halfway across the world. 

While the international system of shipping goods is inseparable from the way we live our lives in the 21st century, it has a major impact on the environment. Below, we examine the environmental cost of shipping, transportation and the impact small- and medium-size businesses have on climate change.


Shipping and the environment

The environmental cost of shipping is complex to say the least. There are no easy answers. Most consumers don't consider how much carbon dioxide is produced when purchasing, say, a toaster, from a brick-and-mortar store or an online store. And consumers don't realize how dramatically the carbon footprint is expanded when they choose fast delivery options such as same-day, one-day or even two-day shipping.

The environmental impact of online shopping

When Amazon first launched in 1994, online shopping was a novelty. Today, ordering products online has become deeply embedded in western culture; it's as American as apple pie. While there is evidence that online shopping produces fewer carbon emissions than traditional shopping, fast delivery methods seem to be worse for the environment. 

In an interview with NPR, the CEO of Conservation International, M. Sanjayan, said, "While online shopping does have a smaller carbon footprint than traditional retail shopping, it's only really better for the environment if you don't get rush delivery." 

To reduce your environmental footprint with online shopping, Sanjayan recommends carefully choosing which items you need rush delivered, and which ones can wait. "You don't need a pair of socks to get to you swiftly. It probably makes just as much sense to get it to you efficiently." 

In addition to super-fast delivery options, consumers who frequently return products drastically expand the carbon footprint of an online sale. This is a huge problem during holiday sales, especially on Black Friday and Cyber Monday in which online deals entice users to purchase products they later decide they don't need. 

Online shopping has a less harmful impact on the environment versus traditional shopping, but only when consumers choose efficient – not fast – shipping methods and don't return items.

How much pollution do ships produce?

Transport ships produce a lot of cancer- and asthma-causing chemicals. Giant container ships consume over 300 tons of fuel daily, and, according to a 2009 report from The Guardian, just one of these massive ships emits almost the same amount of pollution as 50 million cars. 

There are an estimated 20 million shipping containers of varying sizes in the world. Studies show that it only takes 15 massive cargo ships to produce the same amount of emissions as all the cars in the world. It's difficult to imagine just how large of a carbon footprint the shipping industry has on the environment. To put it into perspective, though, an estimated 60,000 people die each year from emissions produced by oceangoing ship engines. 

It's not all bad news, however. While the shipping industry has been under scrutiny by environmental organizations for several years, container ships produce the least amount of carbon dioxide emissions compared to other freight methods. A large cargo ship will emit roughly 10 grams of carbon dioxide per metric ton of cargo. On the other hand, a train produces 30 grams, a freight truck produces 60 grams and an airplane produces 500 grams of CO2 for the same amount of cargo. 

Furthermore, there are promising ways to reduce emissions with freight shipping. "If ships were to move to cleaner diesel fuels," said Genevieve Giuliano, director of the METRANS Transportation Center at the University of Southern California, "that would be a big reduction in emissions."

What businesses can do to reduce shipping pollution

The first step to reduce your business's carbon footprint is to measure your company's impact on the environment by calculating how much pollution your organization produces. You can measure your carbon footprint by undertaking a Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions assessment and actively adopting policies, procedures and practices that promote a cleaner environment. 

Once you have a better understanding of your carbon footprint, you can turn your focus to other efforts that have a greater impact on the environment, such as your shipping practices. Working with a shipping company that adheres to international environmental policies is perhaps the single most effective method of reducing your global carbon footprint. 

Next, companies can help consumers understand how their online shopping habits affect the global community. In his interview with NPR, M. Sanjayan suggests that businesses offer a green, energy-efficient shipping method to promote environmentally conscious habits. For instance, Pitney Bowes' SendPro Online eliminates trips to the post office by letting you print postage and ship items from your computer. 

"Wouldn't it be fantastic if there was a green button that when you shop online, whether you're shopping at Amazon or Walmart, or any other store, you press that green button, and it assures you maximum efficiency within some reasonable period?" says Sanjayan. 

While not every consumer will opt to wait a few extra days to receive their products, environmentally conscious consumers could make a significant impact in reducing both your business's carbon footprint and their own by not choosing rush delivery for their orders. 

With a solid shipping company in place, businesses can then examine the items they have shipped to their office, such as office supplies. Reducing redundant and unnecessary orders and carefully considering which items need to be delivered next day rather than, say, next week is another way companies can reduce their carbon footprint significantly. 

Finally, once your business has set smart shipping policies and practices, you can create a green working environment that encourages departments and employees to reduce their carbon footprint further. 

It may seem as though you, your office, your company and your personal shopping habits represent a tiny portion of the global shipping network and, in truth, it is. You can't combat CO2 emissions and climate change on your own. However, by taking small steps, including making wise choices and offering wise choices for your customers, you can reduce your impact on the environment and encourage others to do the same. 

This article is sponsored by Pitney Bowes.

Image Credit: industryview / Getty Images