Back in 2019, Walmart’s commitment to installing electric vehicle charging stations in many of its stores was met with a round of applause. And when they strengthened their requirements for the sustainable sourcing of their products, that too was seen as a win for mother nature. Target meanwhile received its own praise with the installation of hundreds of solar panels to power their stores. An expanded recycling program by the company was similarly viewed as an overwhelming success, having saved the equivalent of 1 billion plastic bottles from landfills. There’s also Dole’s ongoing water conservation and food waste prevention programs. Both have been regarded favorably. Their efforts to produce food more responsibly have not gone unnoticed. Yet behind this fanfare what does seem to have gone unnoticed are the giant, ocean-going vessels carrying all those sustainably sourced goods. In relying on shipping to transport their products, many of the world’s major retailers are contributing massive amounts of pollutants to the atmosphere, negating all their green efforts hence “greenwashing”. A new report from Pacific Environment and Stand.earth details these findings, and the numbers are staggering.
According to the report, Walmart, Ashley Furniture, Target, Dole, Home Depot, Chiquita, Ikea, Amazon, Samsung, Nike, LG, Redbull, Family Dollar, Williams-Sonoma and Lowes were among the top maritime polluters. In 2019 alone, container imports from these 15 retailers generated 12.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. That is an amount equivalent to the CO2 emitted by three coal-burning power plants. Those same 15 retailers produced 7.3 times more sulfur oxide (SOx) than all the road vehicles in the United States combined, a total of 186,000 metric tons. They also were responsible for over 27,000 metric tons of particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5). That is as much PM2.5 as produced by the entire U.S. mining industry. Of course, all these toxic pollutants pose a major threat to human health. Exposure to SOx increases a person’s risk of cancer and can cause respiratory issues including asthma. PM2.5 emissions have been attributed to lung cancer and a number of cardiopulmonary diseases.
It gets worse. Pacific Environment and Stand.earth report these emissions estimates to be conservative. Data regarding shipping emissions are rarely made public. The lack of transparency meant that researchers were only able to confirm about a fifth of the shipments made by each retailer. Their true emissions are likely to be unimaginably higher. It is no secret why this has been kept a secret. For the dying oil industry, maritime transport has provided a much-needed lifeline. Ships can run on the leftovers from the oil refining process. Oil companies can therefore make a profit on the sludge that they would otherwise had to pay to dispose of safely. With the world’s shipping fleet having quadrupled since 1980, that profit is far from insignificant. In fact, many major oil companies have recognized maritime shipping as their most profitable revenue stream. And for retailers, the offer of relatively cheap transport is just too hard to resist.
The truth is consumers are interested in more than just cost savings. They want to support green endeavors, including sustainable shipping. A 2020 poll by Yale University, George Mason University and Climate Nexus found that 74% of Americans would be willing to change where they shop to purchase sustainably shipped goods. A price increase would not deter that vast majority of shoppers either. Seven out of ten Americans said they are willing to pay more for cleanly shipped products. Retailers should take note. They are in a unique position that could force shipping to clean up their act. Walmart, Target, Dole and the other top maritime polluters need to stop “greenwashing” and not transport their products on fossil-fueled ships. Instead, they should back zero-emission vessels. In doing so, they could incentivize ship owners to make changes. Right now, retail giants are part of the problem, but they could be the solution to finally turning the tide in sustainable shipping.