What Is Carbon Neutral Shipping? Here’s What You Need to Know Before Your Next Online Shopping Spree

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what is carbon neutral shipping: delivery man hands over two packages to a homeowner
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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.

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Meet the Experts

  • Duncan McLaren is an Emmett Centre Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy at UCLA and a Climate Social Science Network (CSSN) Scholar.
  • Dr. Jose Holguin-Veras is the William H. Hart Chair Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment (CITE) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
  • Austin Whitman is the CEO of Climate Neutral, a nonprofit that certifies brands that have measured, established a plan to reduce and compensated for their full carbon footprint. They help hold businesses to an established standard for carbon neutrality claims.
  • Eunice Jung is Head of Partnerships at Future, a fintech company working to democratize climate smart living and encourage consumers to make sustainable behavior changes.

What Is Carbon Neutral Shipping?

The definition of carbon neutral shipping feels deceptively simple. Austin Whitman, CEO of Climate Neutral, explains that when a company uses the term, it’s simply a matter of numbers. They will calculate the distance the package must travel and its size, and from there, can estimate the emissions that shipping your order will produce. The company will then buy carbon credits to offset the emissions.

But Wait, What Is a Carbon Credit?

When a company offers carbon neutral shipping, they are effectively putting money towards offsetting the emissions in the form of a carbon credit purchase. A carbon credit essentially gives the buyer the right to say that their emissions have been neutralized via offsetting.

what is carbon neutral shipping solar panels
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And What Is a Carbon Offset?

A carbon offset is a project that receives financial backing from the sale of a carbon credit. Typically, Whitman explains, the parties involved include a project developer, project verifier, registry provider and sometimes a broker who organizes the transactions. A company will purchase a credit, equivalent to one ton of emissions, which are then avoided (for example, by building a renewable energy facility, which would displace emissions otherwise emitted through conventional means) or offset through technological or nature-based sequestration (like planting trees—but more on that below).

The Catch: We Emit More Carbon Than We Can Offset

Here’s where it gets tricky. According to this position paper co-authored by Duncan McLaren, Emmett Centre Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy, UCLA, and Climate Social Science Network (CSSN) Scholar, offsets come in two main forms, avoidance and removal. The paper notes that in 2021 we sequestered 20,000 tons of carbon—but a coal plant easily produces that a day.

“The best science suggests that there may be enough removals capacity to balance out unavoidable essential emissions, especially from agriculture and maybe from some industrial processes, but that effectively all energy, building and transport emissions will need to be eliminated,” McLaren says. In other words, offsetting will never be enough to compensate for all the carbon we are emitting—at best, it will only allow us to mitigate some emissions, which should be applied to crucial industries like agriculture where there aren’t obvious alternatives. Because of the renewable and sustainable technologies available in the energy and transportation sectors (like solar panels and electric vehicles), McLaren stresses that we should be working to move towards those means and eliminate reliance on traditional sources (fossil fuels, natural gases) as quickly as possible. 

Don’t Be Fooled by Tree-Planting Initiatives

To give another example, let’s take the “plant a tree” idea, i.e., where shoppers get to plant one tree to offset emissions caused by their purchase. This may be an attractive option for consumers, but sadly, it is not a meaningful contribution. According to the USDA, a mature tree can absorb about 50 pounds of carbon dioxide a year—a small drop compared to how much carbon dioxide a person actually emits during that same time period.

what is carbon neutral shipping: man plants an evergreen tree sapling
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“An average American emits maybe 14 to 20 tons (28,000 to 40,000 pounds) of emissions in a year, depending on where you live and your lifestyle,” says Eunice Jung, Head of Partnerships at Future. “You're going to have to plant how many trees in a year, every year, just to offset your own emissions? This doesn't make sense to have trees be the end-all-be-all for these large companies. It is extremely performative.”

And when we consider offsetting shipping specifically from the warehouse to the consumer, this is just another example of greenwashing. You may have offset your package’s journey, but in the overall picture, there’s still a surplus of greenhouse gas.

“To be honest, we have mixed feelings on the idea of carbon neutral shipping, mostly because if you look at the entirety of that cradle to customer journey of a product, the emissions tied to the shipping step in that journey are pretty small,” Whitman says. “They're important, but they're not that significant. They tend to be probably less than five percent of the total impact of that product.” Other factors such as packaging, materials used to fabricate the product and the transportation of raw materials to the factory likely play a larger role in carbon emissions that shipping the finished product to your door.

Carbon Sequestration Isn’t Always Permanent

McLaren adds that a problem with offsets in general (whether they are used to compensate for shipping or other emissions) is the permanence. Sure, you may have “neutralized” your package’s emissions, but that’s contingent on the carbon staying put, whether that’s in trees, in the ocean, in swamps or pumped underground via technological means. A wetland can be an incredibly vast carbon sink, but if warmed or disturbed, can end up releasing carbon dioxide, plus methane and nitrous oxide back into the atmosphere. The same goes for trees. If they fall victim to a fire, then the carbon they have stored escapes. If this happens and the carbon was counted as an offset, McClaren says that the net effect only increases climate change risks.

Most Shipping Companies Can’t Afford to Offset Emissions

According to Dr. Jose Holguin-Veras, William H. Hart Chair Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment (CITE) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, of America’s roughly 15 million trucks, only about 500,000 are operated by the big carriers like Amazon, UPS, FedEx and JPHunt, who could afford to pay for carbon credits. The remaining 14.5 million trucks are usually solo operators or companies with six or less trucks who simply cannot afford to offset their emissions.

what is carbon neutral shipping: semi truck cruises the highway at sunset
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“These people struggle to make a living. If you struggle to make a living, operating your own truck, are you going to buy a more expensive electric truck? Hell no,” Dr. Holguin-Veras says. “They would be insane if they did that. The problem is these companies are struggling financially and transport the majority of the cargo in the U.S. They don't have pricing power.” So, it’s safe to say they aren’t buying carbon credits, either, and if the business you’re buying from isn’t taking these emissions into account, then they aren’t being compensated for.

TLDR; It’s Complicated—But Not Hopeless

Skipped and scrolled to the bottom? That’s OK. Like many things, the issue of carbon neutrality and shipping is multifaceted and complicated. There is, sadly, no direct, easy solution. In fact, shipping itself isn’t inherently bad. A MIT analysis of online shopping’s environmental impact showed that consumer shipping, when not rushed (ex. two-day or overnight), produces lower emissions than if you ran to Target yourself for the toothbrush. Your carbon footprint is a mind-boggling two times smaller, part of the reason being that your package is traveling on an optimized delivery route—think of it as public transit, but for products.

The idea of carbon neutral shipping, though, is greenwashing, i.e., it’s not having the impact that you’re led to believe. So if faced with the option, should you take it? That’s also up for debate. Some experts, including scholars like McClaren, argue that the credit system only encourages our dependence on fossil fuels and old systems because we are placated by the fact that everything can be “offset” (which is untrue). Others, like Whitman, make the point that the credit system encourages the pooling of resources to execute projects, like investing in renewable energy, that an entity on its own may not have the capacity to do on its own.

So, yes, if adding the nominal pennies to the cart assuages any guilt, by all means. But know that there are more impactful actions you could be taking—our experts share their tips below.

Here’s What You Can Do

Here are six big and small actions you can take to lower your carbon footprint. Remember: The goal is not to be perfectly sustainable. The goal is to imperfectly make attempts towards sustainability.

1. Buy Second Hand

We extol the virtues of buying pre-loved goods, but Jung puts that impact into perspective. “A new pair of Levi’s 501s produces the equivalent of five gallons worth of carbon,” she explains. “If you hold that in your hands, you can visualize what holding five gallons of milk would feel like. The production of one pair of jeans—the average carbon emission is five gallons. Think about that going into the atmosphere.” She likes to use a Chrome plug-in called Beni, which will scour the internet for second-hand alternatives. (Psst: Using services like Rent the Runway or borrowing books from the library are also great ways to help lower your carbon footprint.)

2. Do Your Research

Sadly, the consumer bears the burden to be informed about sustainable practices, which makes it difficult to call BS. When you’re researching a new product, don’t be afraid to poke around the company’s website. If they say they have sustainability commitments, they should be transparent about exactly what it means, with concrete and measurable actions. If it seems vague, it’s probably just lip service. 

3. Buy Package-Free

Unfortunately, the little triangle on all your little plastic products means very little. “We actually aren't recycling most things. Of things that end up in the recycling facility, only five percent gets properly recycled. The rest gets thrown into landfill or sits in landfill or an incinerator facility,” Jung explains. When you can, opt for products that have biodegradable (compostable) packaging and/or use glass and metal, both of which are highly recyclable. 

4. Consolidate Your Shipping

When possible, Dr. Holguin-Veras recommends consolidating your orders if given the option. Let’s face it—it’s also less packaging you have to break down and stuff in your recycling bin if all your stuff arrives in one box instead of five small ones.

5. Eat Less Meat

We’re not saying quit cold turkey. But swapping out even one or two meals a week is a great start. “Calorie for calorie, it's so much more carbon intensive than plant-based food,” Whitman says. “It doesn't mean you have to be vegan. It's orders of magnitude. It's more costly from an environmental perspective to eat meat than it is to eat plants.”

6. Electrify Intentionally

Sure, you could go all in with an electric car and stove or put solar panels on your roof. But those are high-ticket items and not always feasible. There are, however, small things you can do that can make a difference, and one of them is as simple as signing up for clean energy purchasing through your utility company, according to Whitman. The electricity you buy (that you need and use anyway) will help support renewable energy.

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