Environmental Impacts of Shipping

Photo by MIAMISM.COM Creative Commons
Photo by MIAMISM.COM Creative Commons

Running an environmentally conscious business with a global supply chain, we at Fairware are faced with the reality that shipping has an impact on the environment. But not all shipments have the same impact.

It is the general assumption that shipping from anywhere within North America will have a lesser impact than shipping from international locations. You may be surprised to learn that is not always the case.

We published a post a few years back touching on this topic in regards to buying glass water bottles that were made in China. We received great feedback on that blog post, and we’d like to take another look at the issues surrounding global shipping with our readers and clients.

So, why do we have this automatic assumption that buying from international suppliers will have a greater environmental impact? In short, it’s the distance. We imagine how far that product has traveled and the harmful emissions caused by its transportation.

Absolutely, the distance a product travels leads to an increased carbon footprint, but in fact, the mode of transport is often a greater indicator of its environmental impact. It’s no surprise that air transport is by far the most harmful, but what many people don’t know is that road (truck) and rail actually produces more emissions than container shipping via ocean.

Air transport produces nearly 60 times more carbon dioxide equivalent emissions than ocean transport, raising greenhouse gas emissions exponentially. Road (or truck) transport produces about 7 times the emissions compared to ocean transport, while rail produces double the emissions. HP does a good job of laying out this hierarchy in their 2009 CSR report.

Statistics aside, transporting by plane remains by far the quickest method of delivery, and often clients and customers are constrained by time when making a decision about shipping. We always urge clients to plan ahead—it really makes all the difference. Shipping should be a top priority discussed when buying a product from a supplier anywhere.

Being based in a port city like Vancouver, transporting a product from a supplier elsewhere in Canada via truck or rail sounds like the more efficient, eco-conscious and economically-sound move. But, if we can get the same product shipped by ocean from a global port city, we are actually reducing GHG emissions. This is not to say that we don’t make the effort to buy locally, there are many reasons beyond shipping to encourage that (check out http://www.locobc.com for some great buy local insights).

The option isn’t always there to buy from suppliers based in our city. Like many businesses, we’re nestled in a global supply chain. Our efforts are focused on using modes of transportation that have less of an impact. We work with clients and supplier to raise awareness on the impacts of rushing their orders – both the costs to them and the environment.

For more insight into this topic, take a look that this very interesting piece on the carbon footprint of wine. The author of this post did impressive research and it is a compelling and important read.

Here are a few US and Canadian programs address these issues in the transportation sector:

US Smartway

Green Suppliers Network

The Canadian Program (ecoFreight) is now defunct but has information on past initiatives