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7 Best Practices for Sustainable Shipping

by EasyPost
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The race to carbon neutrality is on – and sustainable shipping plays a large role. In 2019, parcel and freight shipping created 19 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to Statista. And they forecast those emissions will increase to 25 million tons by 2030.

For many people, reading about the future implications of climate change is uncomfortable. However, real change has to be made in a short period to limit temperature increases across the globe – and the sooner we start making changes, the more impact we will be able to make.

If a business is looking to make its shipping and logistics operations more sustainable, it is the place to start. In this article, we’ll explore steps you can take to bring your business closer to carbon neutrality and answer questions you might have about the process of getting there.

What is sustainable shipping?

Sustainable shipping, or eco-friendly shipping, encompasses any shipping practice to minimize adverse environmental consequences. This can be done through practices like reducing carbon emissions, minimizing waste, and more.

Why does sustainable shipping matter?

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report titled Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, climate change is already here. And the longer we wait to take real, impactful action, the more the impacts of climate change will become irreversible. This is seen through extreme temperatures, weather events, food insecurity, and increased agricultural challenges.

Sustainable shipping matters because there is still time to make a difference. It’s no surprise that the shipping industry impacts the environment, and part of that is due to customer demand for faster transit times. However, there is still value in offering sustainable options, especially if your customers are informed of the impacts of their shopping habits.

Globally, 60% of consumers rate sustainability as an important purchasing factor, according to The Global Sustainability Study 2021 by Simon-Kucher & Partners. Although pricing and product quality continue to be dominant factors for shoppers, some consumers are willing to pay a premium for sustainable products.

Best practices for sustainable shipping

The need for sustainable shipping is at an all-time high, but where does a business begin? We recommend addressing the biggest pain points, like packaging, transportation emissions, and returns. Here are seven best practices for sustainable shipping to help your business get started.

1. Eco-friendly packaging

Eco-friendly packaging alternatives reduce the number of natural resources needed and have a minimal environmental impact compared to traditional packaging. Typically you’ll see this as recycled, recyclable, or compostable materials.

This aims at single-use materials, like poly mailers, that are harder to recycle and can’t be placed in curbside recycling bins. Choosing plastic or cardboard packaging materials isn’t always a bad thing – it’s relatively lightweight, and there are practical recycling options. Just make sure the materials you are using have an accessible and sustainable means of disposal if you go down this route.

Here are some of the most popular eco-friendly packaging materials you may come across that are generally considered sustainable:

  • Previously recycled packaging
  • Plant-based packaging
  • Plantable packaging
  • Compostable plastic packaging
  • Biodegradable plastic packaging

For more specific sustainable packaging techniques you may want to try, check out our 5 Sustainable Packaging Techniques You Need to Try blog post.

2. Carbon offsets

The excessive release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is one of the leading causes of climate change. Businesses can purchase carbon offsets to compensate for the carbon emissions caused by shipping and other unsustainable practices.

When businesses purchase carbon offsets, they fund organizations that remove or eliminate carbon emissions to compensate for the amount of carbon they produce through industrial or other means. When a business purchases enough offsets to counteract the amount of carbon they produce completely, carbon neutrality is considered.

Carbon offsets are great for the environment, but they are also a great tool to show customers you care about sustainability without putting added responsibility on their shoulders.

Visit our Carbon Offset Program page or reach out to one of our shipping experts to learn how you can be one of the first to enroll in this program.

3. Minimize packaging materials

We’ve all been there – you order a relatively small item from an online store, and a few days later, a box ten times the size of your order appears on your doorstep. Unfortunately, when you open it up, there’s a good chance the box is filled to the brim with air pillows, and if it isn’t, it’s probably damaged.

When minimizing the amount of packaging materials used, a business can save money and help the environment at the same time. Less packaging creates less waste while reducing a shipment’s dimensional weight and shipping costs.

Using unnecessarily large packaging materials is nothing short of wasteful. For the most eco-friendly solution, use sustainable materials that properly fit your goods – your wallet, your customers, and your planet will thank you.

4. Opt for ground shipping

Ground-based shipping is the most sustainable service level. While it is slower than expedited and overnight shipping, some customers are willing to wait if that means they’re helping the environment.

Don’t shy away from informing and educating your customers on how their choices impact the environment. For example, listing carbon emissions next to their respective service levels encourages shoppers to think before choosing.

You could put the choice in the hands of your customers to choose the more sustainable option, or you could limit the service levels you offer. Ground shipping is both more affordable and more sustainable, and many customers are willing to wait a few days to receive their package, so why not make this your default shipping option?

Person opening box with a child

5. Implement SIOC

SIOC stands for “ships in their own container,” and is a packaging method that involves shipping an ordered product in its original packaging without any additional wrapping or casing.

For example, if a customer orders a set of headphones, it likely already comes packaged in a cardboard box. So, rather than adding another layer of over-box packaging to ship the product, you can place a shipping label on the existing headphones packaging and send it on its way.

This is another example of how sustainable shipping can save money since you don’t have to pay for additional shipping materials. Just be wary that SIOC may be more tempting to porch pirates. Keep an eye out for this to make sure the problem doesn’t get out of hand and cause you to take unnecessary losses.

6. Encourage customer action

Encourage your customers to take sustainable actions, like reusing packaging materials and recycling. Choose packaging that reminds them of their options and makes for easily accessible recycling.

Thin plastic materials that are often seen in air pillows, bubble wrap, shipping envelopes, and bubble mailers are usually not accepted in curbside recycling. However, if you choose to use these materials, it is helpful to suggest ways to reuse them and offer instructions on finding the closest drop-off location for recycling.

7. Optimize your logistics

It’s possible for your shipping to become more sustainable before a package even leaves your warehouse. This can be done by working with a 3PL that puts sustainability at its forefront or tweaking your logistics operations to promote sustainability.

When optimizing your logistics or choosing a sustainable 3PL, you'll want to consider waste reduction, energy efficiency, and automation implementation. In addition, as logistics continues to become a more competitive industry, we hope to see more warehousing operations focusing on sustainability.

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FAQs about sustainable shipping

Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about sustainable shipping:

What is the most sustainable shipping method?

Ground-based shipping is the most sustainable service level. This standard option is typically the most affordable and the slowest, but it produces far fewer emissions compared to expedited and overnight shipping.

What is meant by green logistics?

Green logistics, or eco-logistics, is the practice of taking traditional logistics operations and making them more sustainable in reducing the environmental impact that the business causes. This can include but is not limited to the processes, systems, design, and equipment used to store and distribute merchandise.

Is it bad for the environment to return merchandise?

Returning merchandise only increases the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the environment. Still, a customer shouldn't be left with an unsatisfactory product. However, preventative action can minimize returns, such as more secure packaging or posting accurate sizing charts on product web pages.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing, or green marketing, is a PR and marketing strategy that misleadingly promotes the levels to which a business, its products, and practices are sustainable for the environment. As demand grows for more environmentally friendly products, several brands have adopted this deceptive strategy. If a business is truly sustainable, it will likely back up those claims with facts and figures on its website.

It’s time to get started

EasyPost is committed to helping our users reach their sustainability goals. Our flexible APIs work with a great number of carriers and sustainable partners to provide the most dependable shipping experience. Get in touch with one of our shipping experts to learn more about our carbon offset program and how EasyPost can help you achieve your sustainability goals.