Walmart, Ikea and Amazon have a dirty shipping problem

Giant retailers, including Amazon and Ikea, have pledged to go green, but their shipping is still pretty gross. Thanks to a new report, shoppers can now see just how much pollution some of the largest retail companies in the US produce when they bring goods into the country. In 2019, the 15 companies in the report caused nearly as much climate pollution as 1.5 million American homes in a year.

The report looks at greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution caused by shipping piles of freight around the world and ranks the top 15 biggest polluters by company. Walmart Tops the list, which generates more greenhouse gas emissions than a coal-fired power station would in a year. Ashley Furniture, Target, Dole and Home Depot round out the top five. Ikea and Amazon are in 7th and 8th place, respectively. Samsung is in 9th place and LG in 11th.

Image: Pacific Ocean, Stand.earth

While experts have known for some time that shipping is the culprit behind three percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, individual retailers responsible for that pollution have so far largely avoided scrutiny. But with the curtain pulling back on companies’ carbon footprints, consumers have more ammunition to demand action on climate change.

“There hadn’t really been any research into this pillar of corporate emissions portfolios,” said Madeline Rose, lead author of the report published today by the nonprofit environmental groups Pacific Environment and Stand.earth. “Frankly, with the climate emergency at our doorstep, we just feel like there has to be a disruption to the data system and there needs to be more transparency.”

To track companies’ emissions, the organizations first looked to a public database called the Journal of Commerce to identify the U.S.’s largest importers by volume. They then commissioned the University Maritime Advisory Services (UMAS), which has access to other maritime import databases, to compare the public data with their own proprietary information. Together they linked the individual shipments of retailers to specific ships. Based on the ships’ voyages, 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 empty companies with names other than their parent companies.

“Because the data is so opaque, it only captures about 20 percent of the market and extrapolates from there,” said Dan Rutherford, who leads aviation and maritime programs for the International Council on Clean Transportation, who was not involved in the investigation. “I think that’s right, because the data itself is not available. But it does indicate that we need better rules and transparency.”

The study also does not take into account the emissions from the return journey of ships after unloading their cargo. Nor does it geolocate the emissions to see where they end up. That could be important for coastal communities that are saddled with the pollution that drifts ashore. Estimated 60,000 people die prematurely each year after exposure to air pollution from shipping. The 15 companies named in the new report caused as much air pollution in 2019 – including soot, sulfur oxide and nitrous oxide – as tens of millions of cars and trucks.

The research is also limited to imports from the US, although the US is the largest consumer market in the world. Since supply chains can span multiple companies in different countries, it was difficult to allocate shipping emissions to a single country. That makes regulation of industry pollution very difficult, because it is not clear who should be held accountable.

“Here’s another giant case of emissions falling through the cracks,” said 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 there’s been a consensus on exactly how to go about it… at least we can say, you know, IKEA is responsible for some of this emissions.”

Despite their sweeping climate pledges, companies like Ikea and Amazon are still doing significant damage to the planet, as this report shows. Both companies responded to The edge with statements highlighting their sustainability commitments, while Walmart, LG and Samsung did not respond to a request for comment. Ikea says it wants to emit more greenhouse gases than it emits by 2030. Amazon is aiming to do something similar by 2040 and is working to get more electric vehicles on the road to reduce 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’s very out of sight and the source of pollution,” Rose says. “If we don’t get the emissions from maritime ships under control, we won’t solve the climate crisis.”