How Shipping Services can be Sustainable on Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Krista Greenaway

Krista Greenaway

Steve Martin and John Candy fromPlanes, trains and automobiles

International shipping is on the rise. E-commerce shipping services are becoming more popular. And so consumers are demanding frequent and fast shipping from across the globe. We discuss 3 ways that consumer goods are received globally including land, sea and air freight.

All 3 international shipping services can be improved. In this article we will identify exactly how businesses can make their  shipping service more sustainable.

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Maybe you’ve seen the witty comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles? Maybe you ended up as frustrated with John Candy’s character Del Griffith as you are with climate change? 

Because of a dramatic rise in eCommerce shopping, there is now a higher demand for consumer goods to be delivered worldwide. As a result, these products are being shipped across our international borders daily, with heavy-duty transport accounting for half of all transport-related emissions.

The culprits being: 

Increased contributions to climate change

This demand is being met with increased supply. A supply met by businesses that are using international shipping methods more frequently than ever before. Businesses now need to start thinking about how each of these transport options are majorly contributing to climate change. 

The shipping industry alone is responsible for 1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year – a volume of emissions that equates to the amount produced by a majorly developed country like Germany.

If we do not take action soon to diminish these numbers, climate change could be detrimental. Let’s compare the impact of planes, trains and automobiles and see who comes out the greenest.

green delivery truck parked on street

1. On Land – Trains & Automobiles 

We are all capable of understanding how the products that surround us come to be there. Businesses receive an order, and once the transaction is complete, the items are delivered via the selected courier service.

But with a surge in eCommerce sales and the added demand for fast delivery, the increased activity of delivery vehicles on our roads is causing pollution figures to spike. Because of this, carbon dioxide emissions from delivery traffic are now expected to increase by 32% or around 6 million tons.

Partnering with delivery services that practice sustainable shipping will counteract negative environmental consequences from deliveries.

To make road transport greener, we predominantly need to use courier services that provide green shipping options. And, fortunately for businesses, this is becoming a widely popular practice.

Leaders in mail service, including FedEx, UPS, and DHL, all offer sustainable shipping programs. They utilise recycled shipping materials, and offer paperless invoicing and tracking options that protect our rainforests.

 Not only that, these programmes allow customers to offset the climate impact of their delivery order. And, for most companies, this means that for every tonne of CO2 produced by transporting a delivery, the equivalent amount of CO2 is saved.

This is done by a verified emission reduction project that aids to combat climate change.

evergreen marine corporation cargo ship transporting consumer goods

2. By Ship and Sea

Typically 90% of what is consumed in the UK alone has been imported. Whether it’s a product, commodity, or raw material – more often than not, these objects were once on a boat. To get from wherever it was made or harvested to wherever it’s used or consumed requires items to sail across seas before it even enters a local warehouse.

Harbor freight works something like this: the company with goods to transport subcontracts to a logistics company and then the logistics company will charter a ship. Now think of these logistics with a figure of 50,000 in mind. These 50,000 merchant vessels crossing seas and oceans at any given time are responsible for emitting 1 billion tonnes of CO2 each year. 

hundred of colourful shipping containers in port harbour
Utilising sustainable sea freight can equate to less pollution in our atmosphere and our oceans.

As with most environmental statistics, this number is expected to increase due to ever growing populations and urbanisation. With this in mind, we need to look into how we can balance these figures. Utilising suppliers that constitute a more eco-friendly supply chain.

With help of the SSI and their sustainability road map, businesses that cannot step away from harbor freight will be able to implement sustainable practices with international shipping partners easier.

Going forward, companies need to look into using shipping partners that use greener fuels, efficient energy measures, artificial intelligence, or solar power. As a business that is looking to go green it is important to set a budget aside that can subsidize these new environmental practices.

green airplane graphic flying in motion

3. And by Plane

Large businesses will often use air freight as a mode of transporting international goods because planes can store more cargo compared to ships. However, the use of air freight as a service is often limited by cost. Typically air freight is priced 4–5 times that of road transport and 12–16 times that of sea transport. 

This means that high-quality products will be shipped by air. These might be pharmaceuticals, electronics, or fresh produce. More people are looking into using air freight because it is time conscious and eliminates cargo clearance delays. Because of this, it can supply a high-demand product such as the new iPhone faster than sea freight. 

Minimise air freight where possible and ensure pollution levels stay low

Sustainable air freight is a matter of minimising the necessity for such large and long-routed cargo hauls. Consider avoiding aviation as a method of international shipping wherever possible. This way you will be minimising your carbon footprint dramatically.

For businesses that need to use air freight, it is a matter of using eco-efficient planes. The aviation industry is now looking into exploring long-term financing for sustainable aviation fuels. Something that will reduce net carbon emissions and hopefully fund projects that allow businesses to opt for using a fully electrical aircraft.

Which is the best option?

It is difficult to crown a “least sustainable” winner in international shipping services. Still, harbor freight is better than air freight, and using a local mail service is better than both. But more sustainable solutions are on the horizon. 

Fortunately for businesses, logistics companies are aware of the environmental consequences caused by shipping and delivery services and are providing sustainable programmes to combat carbon emissions.


steve martin and john candy laughing on set of planes trains and automobiles

It all comes down to this…

Whether products are sent by land, sea or air, shipping mass amounts is inevitably going to create a mass amount of pollution. But it is our partnerships within our supply chain that will make the biggest differences in becoming an environmentally friendly business. 

Recently, 114 large corporations committed to reducing emissions via eco-friendly shipping. By doing so they are evaluating their shipping partners and implementing sustainable shipping regulations.

If you’re looking to start making sustainability improvements within your supply chain, now is the time to join these businesses and start small. The supply chain is a huge barrier to tackle, and while you may be walking away with new insight, it’s still a tough feat to immediately implement the scale of change we’re talking about.

What’s next?

You can begin with these 4 ways to ensure your shipping is sustainable and then follow up with our informative sustainability checklist to keep you on track. Because changes that start small will put you in the running for more considerable environmental change regarding your fulfillment partners. 

By going sustainable, you will not only be helping the environment, but you will probably help your bottom line as well. Thankfully, we’ve also got our helpful tools for climate action to help your business start its sustainability journey.

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