A few weeks ago, I was poking around the Internet researching laundry tablets. The company proudly proclaimed that they had carbon-neutral shipping. I paused. This wasn’t the first time I had seen the concept—in fact, I had succumbed, sometime in recent memory, to the gentle nudge to add ten cents (or whatever negligible amount I can no longer recall) to my cart to offset my shipping for a different purchase. That got me seriously pondering: What is carbon neutral shipping? Is it really making the environmental impact companies claim it does? Or is it simply a greenwashing technique akin to no more than a participation trophy? (Read: Makes you feel good but is actually worthless.)
There’s no denying that shipping is a huge part of our lives. Amazon shipped 7.7 billion packages in 2021 alone. From produce to clothing, we operate in a global economy that makes it easy to buy goods manufactured in other countries. In fact, the United Nations COMTRADE data shows that in 2021, the United States imported over $541 billion worth of goods from China.
According to the Environmental Protection Agengy (EPA), transportation, which it defines as the movement of goods and people, accounted for 27 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. In a bid to discover how the concept of carbon neutral shipping is actually playing out in the fight against climate change, I spoke to several experts in the academic, nonprofit and business spaces to understand how all the (at times convoluting) factors converge and work when a company says “carbon neutral shipping.” So, before you dive into your next online shopping session, here’s what you need to know about carbon neutral shipping, plus a few ways you can make better choices for the planet.