Giant retailers, including Amazon and Ikea, have vowed to go green, but their shipping is still pretty messy. Now, shoppers can see how much pollution each of the largest retail companies in the US is generating when bringing products into the country, thanks to a new report. In 2019, the 15 companies in the report generated nearly as much climate pollution as 1.5 million American homes in a year.
The report analyzes greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution caused by shipping loads of cargo around the world and ranks the top 15 polluters by company. Walmart tapas the list, generating more greenhouse gas emissions than a coal-fired power plant would generate in a year. Ashley Furniture, Target, Dole and Home Depot round out the top five. Ikea and Amazon ranked seventh and eighth, respectively. Samsung ranked ninth and LG eleventh.
While experts have long known that shipping is to blame for three percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the individual retailers responsible for that pollution have been able to avoid scrutiny until now. But with the curtain up on companies’ carbon footprint, consumers have more ammunition to demand action on climate change.
“There really hadn’t been an investigation into this pillar of the companies’ emissions portfolio,” says Madeline Rose, lead author of the report released today by the nonprofit environmental groups Pacific Environment and Stand.earth. “Frankly, with the climate emergency just around the corner, we feel there must be a data system outage and there must be more transparency.”
To track company emissions, organizations first consulted a public database called the Journal of Commerce to identify the largest US importers by volume. They then commissioned the University Maritime Advisory Services (UMAS), which has access to other maritime import databases, to cross-reference public data with their own proprietary information. Together, they matched individual shipments from retailers with specific vessels. Based on the ships’ trips, they were able to estimate fuel consumption and the resulting emissions. Their estimates are likely low, because the researchers were unable to verify all freight trips made by franchises and shell companies with different names than their parent companies.
“Because the data is so opaque, it only captures about 20 percent of the market and then extrapolates upward from there,” says Dan Rutherford, who directs the aviation and marine programs for the International Council on Clean Transportation, and who did not participate in the investigation. “I think it is appropriate, because the data itself is not available. But it does point to the fact that we need better rules and transparency. “
The research also does not take into account the emissions from the return trips of the ships after unloading their cargo. Nor does it geolocate emissions to see where they end. That could be important for coastal communities that are affected by pollution reaching the coast. It is estimated that 60,000 people prematurely each year after being exposed to air pollution from shipping. The 15 companies named in the new report generated as much air pollution in 2019, including soot, sulfur oxide and nitrous oxide, as tens of millions from cars and trucks.
The study is also limited to US imports, although the US is the world’s largest consumer market. Since supply chains can involve multiple companies spanning multiple countries, it has been difficult to allocate shipping emissions to a single nation. That has made regulating industry pollution really difficult because it is not clear who should be held accountable.
“Here’s another giant case of emissions being left out,” says Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University who was not involved in the study. “We knew we had to do something about shipping, and I don’t think a consensus has emerged exactly on how to deal with that … at least we can say, you know, IKEA is responsible for some of these emissions.”
Despite their broad climate promises, companies like Ikea and Amazon are still causing significant damage to the planet, as this report shows. Both companies responded to The edge with statements highlighting its sustainability commitments, while Walmart, LG and Samsung did not respond to a request for comment. Ikea says it wants to cut more greenhouse gases than it emits by 2030. Amazon is trying to do something similar by 2040 and is working to put more electric vehicles on the road to cut emissions from its deliveries. Rose wants to see more of that thought in how goods are transported by sea.
“One of the big problems with shipping is that it is a source of pollution that is very out of sight, out of mind,” says Rose. “If we do not control the emissions of maritime ships, we will not solve the climate emergency.”