Large retailers that rely on imported products from Asia, Latin America, Europe, and Africa have a common problem, the environmental footprint of maritime shipping. A recent report card from Ship It Zero, an alliance of environmental groups, highlighted poor progress by the retail and shipping industries against their stated commitments to decarbonize and adopt clean-air shipping practices.
The shipping industry, which produces 2% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions annually, has committed to reduce its CO2 emissions by 40% compared to 2008 before the decade’s end. But as a whole, shipping’s carbon footprint is going the wrong way, rising by 5% during 2022 after briefly dipping during the COVID-19 pandemic. Only one shipping company, Maersk, and retailer IKEA scored better than a “C” in Ship It Zero’s review.
Consumers pay for the emissions in two ways, as a cost to their pocketbook and the warming caused by CO2. This year’s record-setting temperatures are the result, in part, of the billions of pounds of goods shipped by sea in the past.
The Carbon Accounting of Ocean Shipping
Many factors influence the precise carbon emissions associated with shipping a pound of clothing, electronics, or furniture across the ocean, including the ship’s weight, the speed and distance the item was shipped, the density of the items sent, and how the boat was fueled. Yet we can see the high environmental cost of shipping powered by fossil fuels.
According to the Carbon Fund, ocean shipping produces 0.0921532256 lbs. of CO2 per ton-mile (converted to imperial). Ninety-two thousandths of a pound does not sound like much, but that carbon adds ups. For example, suppose a 300-lb. refrigerator is shipped 6,497 miles from Shanghai to Los Angeles. In that case, it generates about 89 lbs. of carbon emissions from fuel burned during the trip. And CO2 isn’t the only kind of pollution shipping produces.”After CO2, black carbon (BC) contributes the most to the climate impact of shipping, representing 7% of total shipping CO2-eq emissions on a 100-year timescale and 21% of CO2-eq emissions on a 20-year time scale, the International Council on Clean Transportation reports. Because BC is a short-lived climate pollutant, reducing BC emissions from ships would immediately reduce shipping’s climate impacts.”
With global temperatures hitting their highest in 120,000 years, the need for prompt climate action is unmistakable.
“Companies must take responsibility and eliminate maritime shipping emissions immediately to remain 1.5°C-aligned,” Eric Leveridge, Ship It Zero Lead at Pacific Environment, said in a statement. He pointed out that global emissions must peak no later than 2025 to avoid a climate catastrophe.
“We also want to see public commitments,” Leveridge told Earth911 on a recent podcast, arguing that retailers have the influence to drive changes by large shipping companies. “We want [retailers] talking very specifically about how they want green shipping options.”
Retailers: A Mixed Bag of Commitments
Ship It Zero’s research examined a variety of retail company disclosures, research reports, and press releases of top retailers to gauge their dedication to decarbonization. The grades issued were based on the retailer’s efforts to end port pollution, which frequently impacts under-served communities that are located nearby, measures taken to abandon dirty ships and fossil fuels, and whether the retailer has issued a clear commitment to achieving full decarbonization of their supply chains and shipping.
The findings were troubling. Most retailers have yet to fully embrace their responsibility for decarbonizing maritime shipping. Many still need to start quantifying their Scope 3 emissions, including the pollution from shipping. For example, Amazon and Target have yet to take substantive measures to implement their maritime shipping decarbonization commitments.
Top Scorers and Laggards
IKEA emerged as the top performer among the retailers evaluated, with a commendable “B+” score of 89/100, far ahead of the pack. IKEA’s progressive steps include a dedication to reducing port pollution and a clear roadmap for zero-emission ocean shipping by 2040 that set a benchmark for others in the industry.
However, not all retailers are mirroring IKEA’s diligence. For instance:
- Home Depot scored 20/100 (an “F”) because it shows little initiative to tackle emissions and lacks a comprehensive strategy for maritime decarbonization.
- Amazon, despite its vast resources, managed only a “D” score of 54.75/100. While it has set some maritime-specific targets and advocates for climate policy, there’s still much room for improvement. The company recently retracted its commitment to make half its ocean shipping emissions-free by 2030.
- Lowe’s and Target, with “F” scores of 22.75/100 and 37.25/100, respectively, have made limited commitments to port pollution reduction and maritime decarbonization.
- Walmart, one of the world’s largest retailers, presented a disappointing “F” score of 14.5/100. Although Walmart is taking some measures to reduce shipping emissions, its approach needs comprehensive strategies for maritime decarbonization, according to Ship It Zero.
- Furniture retailers Ashley and Living Spaces scored an alarming 0/100, showing no efforts toward decarbonization. These retailers received “F” grades because they didn’t attend class.
- Williams-Sonoma and Costco were also lacking in their commitments, with “F” scores of 28.75/100 and 8.5/100, respectively.
Carriers: Where’s the Accountability?
The report also highlighted carriers’ roles in the maritime decarbonization movement. Despite having greater power to push shipping decarbonization initiatives, most shipping companies were found wanting. Only Danish shipper Maersk scored a “B” or higher. Most have merely pledged carbon neutrality by 2050, which experts believe is too late to prevent runaway climate disasters.
According to Ship It Zero, the shipping industry is touting its reliance on false solutions, such as liquefied natural gas and emissions scrubbers on exhaust systems, instead of reducing the source of emissions: fossil fuels.
Consumers Have Influence, Too
Ship It Zero’s report card is a stark reminder of the unfinished work to reach maritime decarbonization. With their global supply chains and influence, retail giants have a responsibility to lead the charge. Climate change impacts, from food shortages, extreme weather, coastal flooding, and other disasters, are projected to reduce the global economy’s size by $23 trillion by 2050, according to SwissRe, a global reinsurance company. Retailers should be alarmed at the potential disruptions their businesses will face if consumers are 11% to 14% poorer than today. But they remain steadfast in their use of carbon-intensive shipping.
Understanding where retailers stand on these issues can guide purchasing decisions for consumers. We must speak up to retailers to encourage them to make positive changes. Every purchase is a vote for the world we want to live in. As the report illustrates, very few companies are making commendable strides, and there’s still a long journey ahead to a genuinely sustainable maritime industry.