Sustainability Efforts in Shipping Logistics

sustainable shipping illustration feature

Shipping logistics affect all of our lives in ways we tend not to think about. The transportation of goods across the world shapes what we buy, wear and use. Shipping influences the cost of goods, world trade and especially companies’ environmental impact.

With massive freighters and cargo planes crisscrossing the world to bring you your ordered goods, understanding sustainability efforts in shipping is an important aspect of being a conscientious consumer. Shipping can be damaging for the environment, but some businesses and organizations are stepping up to enact change.

Change is needed, and through commitments to sustainability in the shipping logistics industry, real progress can be made in securing environmental stability. Here’s what you should know.

Environmental Impacts of Shipping

According to one study examining greenhouse gas emissions, current growth rates could put the shipping industry on track to produce as much as 10% of the world’s emissions by 2050. Increases in greenhouse gases in the environment have been proven to make changes in the composition of the climate. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this leads to:

  • Global warming
  • Changes in surface air and ocean temperatures
  • Changes in precipitation and sea levels
  • Higher risk for people and structures in vulnerable climate zones

Any one of these factors is alarming enough. With an upset climate balance, the world faces natural disasters and challenges that inhibit vulnerable people’s access to resources. The potential for widespread humanitarian crises to emerge as a result of climate change is all but inevitable.

Add to these concerns the rising tide of automation. Manufacturing and shipping alike are looking to improve efficiency through the integration of robotics and AI tech. Often, this integration comes at the loss of human jobs. Automation is concerning because it can sometimes represent the propulsion of something labeled “progress” without necessarily taking into account human livelihoods.

In shipping logistics, automation may be a double-edged sword. On one side, the stampede towards growing revenues—if poorly calculated—could cause damage to the environment and human wellbeing. On the other side, the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies in automation could actually stand to benefit the environment.

With emergent tech like AI and machine learning, shipping logistics can plot more efficient routes. Automated tools are able to build more cost-effective, material-light parts. Manufacturing processes like 3D printing can make use of durable, sustainable materials.

The future, then, is not all bleak. Innovation in shipping may ultimately have a positive impact on the environment. However, it will take thorough efforts from industry-spanning companies to implement sustainable shipping logistics.

Efforts in Sustainability

Sustainability efforts are being enacted by many major companies. Industry leaders with more assets to leverage have greater room to experiment with sustainable practices, leading to innovations from the top down in supply chain sustainability.

By changing their shipping and manufacturing practices, companies are reducing their carbon footprint by:

  • Sourcing materials locally
  • Designing products for longevity
  • Increasing supply route efficiency
  • Increasing use of recyclables

Central to these efforts is the integration of technology to analyze and plan for sustainability. In the food industry, supply chains are notorious for contributing to food waste. With technology, such waste can be reduced. Walmart, for example, instituted a machine learning system called Eden to analyze produce quality and automatically route ripening goods to nearby locations. This system has already saved the company $86 million while reducing food waste.

Similarly, Campbell’s—the soup company—has shown a commitment to sustainability by using digital supply chain tools from suppliers on up through the supply chain. This method represents the greener future possible in freight. With analytics tools, Campbell’s assists its suppliers in managing their soil and agricultural resources to produce their crops more efficiently. Then, Campbell’s applies those same tools to create better routes for trucks more densely filled with freight. This allows for fewer trucks on the road and in turn reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

With widespread sustainability efforts like these from major producers, we could see a shift in the environmental impacts of shipping. Analytics tools provide shipping logistics managers with the means to make better decisions. Through a focused approach, real change for a sustainable future is possible.

The Possibility of Sustainable Change

Shipping has a substantial impact on the world’s climate. With goods traveling all across the world in our global economy, businesses must examine supply chain logistics to see where processes can be improved. Luckily, emergent technology is making this increasingly more possible.

With the future headed towards innovations like driverless trucking, which is capable of reducing idling and maximizing route efficiency, sustainability may be closer than ever. However, a true approach to sustainability also focuses on human impact and social needs. Driverless trucking requires a focus on education and technological training. Sustainable change is only possible if the social structure underlying business will open itself up to such change.

In the post-COVID world, we have perhaps seen the beginning of this process. With telecommuting now common, traffic reduction is possible. Meanwhile, office waste and paper usage are on the decline. The acceptance of changing processes for worker and environmental safety is on the rise.

Better connective technology allows for these solutions. Paired with human-centric policies for a more sustainable world, we can make real change possible.

Noah Rue is a freelance journalist based in Boise, ID