How Do You Know If Your Package Was Shipped Green?

How Do You Know If Your Package Was Shipped Green?

It’s a question that I’ve found myself asking at lot these days: “How did that get there?”

The phone my wife recently purchased was flown in from China and arrived to our house on a truck. It arrived two days after she ordered it; though she insists that she didn’t purchase the expedited shipping option.

The snow tires I ordered from an online clearing house arrived via truck. They were shipped out of a regional distribution center in, I believe, Connecticut. They were probably trucked there too. Time from me clicking “purchase” to them being at my door: three days.

I find myself asking the same question when I’m browsing through stores. Those USB drives I recently purchased, were they flown in from Asia or did they go by ocean freight? The slacks from Bangladesh that I recently picked up? I hope they weren’t flown over too. Clearly, though, a truck drove them that last mile to the mall.

Goods movement, freight, logistics -- call it what you will. Regardless of name, it’s the source of a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Eight percent of U.S. emissions are from moving stuff from “A” to “B” (and then from “B” to “C” and so on). While accurate global figures on emissions from goods movement are hard to come by, it’s probably a comparable amount globally too.

For any given product, transportation is likely a relatively small component of its overall lifecycle environmental impact. A Wall Street Journal article last year noted that transportation was responsible for “less than 5 percent of the carbon footprint” of Timberland shoes and “came in fourth, behind manufacturing the glass bottles and producing the barley and malt” for six packs of Fat Tire Amber Ale. And, while many of us remained concerned about “Food Miles,” transport accounts for only about 11 percent of the food system's emissions.

Of course, 5 percent here, 11 percent there and soon you’re talking about real numbers -- probably a couple gigatons annually. It’s because of the size of this overall contribution that I’ve been tasked with exploring ways Environmental Defense Fund can challenge companies (both logistics providers and consumers of their services) to increase the carbon efficiency of freight operations.

At the most basic level, the solutions can appear easy: Build more time into the system and then use slower, more carbon efficient modes of transportation. And, yes, there is a direct correlation between the carbon efficiency of a mode and its cost: The more polluting the higher the cost.

Of course, when things get down to brass tacks, it gets a lot more complicated. Longer lead times require higher inventory levels, which increases costs and risk. There also are very real capacity and infrastructure challenges in some of the less carbon intensive modes.  It’s clear, though that what matters more than the distance traveled is the journey itself.

Building off the work of many in the logistics industry, we’ve pulled together a collection of tactics that shippers can employ to improve the environmental performance of their freight choices. Being a big believer in the importance of performance metrics too, we’ve noted free, online calculators were companies can assess the impact of various routes and modes. These are just the first steps in our journey to help develop a cleaner, more efficiency future for freight.

Images CC licensed by Flickr users rockinfree and Robert Gaal.

The original version of this piece is cross-posted at the EDF Innovation Exchange.