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Environmental groups take aim at retail giants as ocean freight polluters

Report cites 15 top retailers as bad actors in sustainability efforts

(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Two environmental groups have thrown down the gauntlet to 15 of the world’s most prominent companies, demanding they achieve emissions-free ocean shipping by 2030, contractually agree to ship their goods on zero-emission vessels, and reject “false solutions” like liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a sustainable way to get goods to market.

In a report published Tuesday, Pacific Environment and also urged the U.S. government to go beyond its April pledge that required the ocean freight industry ship emissions-free by 2050. Pollution fees should also be imposed that would be used to fund new low-emission technologies, the groups said. Given booming demand and soaring freight rates in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, ship lines have no financial excuse to steer clear of investments, such as the addition of wind-harnessing technologies to existing ships, that could reduce carbon emissions by 30% per voyage, the report said.

The top polluters cited in the report, titled “Shady Ships,” read like a who’s-who of American retailing. Walmart Inc. (NYSE:WMT) was the leading polluter, according to the report. It was followed by Ashley HomeStore Corp., Target Corp. (NYSE:TGT), Dole Food Corp. and Home Depot (NYSE:HD). The findings were based on 2019 import data. Backhaul sailings, which typically return empty to Asian manufacturing locations, were excluded from the data.

The 15 companies in the report

Here are the 15 retail companies with the largest maritime import emissions, based on available data from 2019 U.S. imports, according to the “Shady Ships” report.

1. Walmart6. Chiquita11. LG
2. Ashley7. IKEA12. Red Bull
3. Target8. Amazon13. Family Dollar
4. Dole9. Samsung14. Williams-Sonoma
5. Home Depot10. Nike15. Lowes

The groups claimed that transparency in emissions reporting is badly lacking, noting they could verify just 20% of the shipments that moved on behalf of the 15 companies cited. They urged lawmakers and regulators to require companies to disclose all of their shipping affiliations when submitting required import and export data.

The 2030 target for emissions-free ocean shipping is an ambitious one. In late June, Target announced a sustainability initiative called Target Forward, in which it committed to a zero-emissions supply chain by 2040. Walmart is a founding member of the Race to Zero Breakthroughs initiative, launched earlier this month. The founding group of four companies said it would work toward halving carbon emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero levels by 2050 at the latest. 

One of the charter members is Ingka Group, which runs the Swedish retail giant IKEA. IKEA placed seventh on the report’s top 15 polluters. The environmental groups said that although IKEA “prides itself on being a sustainability leader in international retail,” its “continued use of fossil-fueled ships fails to meet its own climate standards.”

The thumbs-down on LNG-powered vessels may come as a surprise to some. Considered the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, LNG is seen by the industry as a safe and affordable way to meet strict environmental regulations. 

The report also called for more “slow-steaming operations where vessel operating speeds are slowed to far less than full power in order to reduce emissions and conserve fuel. It is estimated that CO2 levels would be cut by nearly 20% if all ships would slow steam.

However, a story published Friday in American Shipper, a publication owned by FreightWaves, said that vessel operators are accelerating their speeds to move more cargo and capitalize on historically high box rates.

Pacific Environment did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the National Retail Federation (NRF), the leading retailer trade group, or the World Shipping Council (WSC), which represents global box lines.

Mark Solomon

Formerly the Executive Editor at DC Velocity, Mark Solomon joined FreightWaves as Managing Editor of Freight Markets. Solomon began his journalistic career in 1982 at Traffic World magazine, ran his own public relations firm (Media Based Solutions) from 1994 to 2008, and has been at DC Velocity since then. Over the course of his career, Solomon has covered nearly the whole gamut of the transportation and logistics industry, including trucking, railroads, maritime, 3PLs, and regulatory issues. Solomon witnessed and narrated the rise of Amazon and XPO Logistics and the shift of the U.S. Postal Service from a mail-focused service to parcel, as well as the exponential, e-commerce-driven growth of warehouse square footage and omnichannel fulfillment.