These 15 US Retailers Have the Worst Cargo Shipping Footprint

Imports for these companies generated as much sulfur oxide as 2 billion cars and trucks.

Aerial View Of Container Ship Sailing In Sea

Suphanat Khumsap / EyeEm / Getty Images

When Ikea announced 100% electric home delivery in certain cities and Amazon started working toward zero-emission deliveries, they both got a decent amount of credit. The same goes for Walmart installing electric vehicle chargers or Target’s embrace of circular design. Yet while these retailers might all be taking some substantive steps toward mitigating emissions, there’s still a sizable, ocean-going elephant in the room. And that elephant smells like bunker fuel. 

According to a report from Pacific Environment and—entitled Shady Ships—just 15 U.S. retailers are responsible for as much sulfur oxide, nitrous oxide, and particulate matter pollution as tens of millions of vehicles, emitting the same amount of climate pollution as heating and powering 1.5 million average-sized homes. What's more, shipping imports for these companies created the same amount of sulfur oxide as 2 billion cars and trucks.

The 15 retailers are Walmart, Ashley Furniture, Target, Dole, Home Depot, Chiquita, Ikea, Amazon, Samsung, Nike, LG, Redbull, Family Dollar, Williams-Sonoma, and Lowes.

Here’s a summary of the report’s methodology, from the accompanying press release: 

By cross referencing a comprehensive set of cargo manifests with a dataset on individual ship emissions, researchers were able to estimate the pollution associated with each unit of cargo on discrete shipping routes and, for the first time, assign those emissions to retail companies. Walmart, for example, was responsible for 3.7 million metric tons of climate pollution from its shipping practices in 2019, more than an entire coal-fired power plant emits in a year. Target, IKEA, Amazon, and eleven other companies were also investigated.

Whenever we write about a report like this, there’s discussion and debate about whether responsibility for these emissions lies with the retailer/manufacturer, or with the end consumer. Yet in a world where so many of these retailers are trying to present themselves as good faith actors on climate, they have—in many ways—answered this question for us. If businesses are serious about tackling their carbon emissions, then they are going to have to take a comprehensive look at where all of those emissions are coming from. 

Here’s how Madeline Rose, Climate Campaign Director for Pacific Environment, suggests we assign responsibility: 

“Working class communities disproportionately of color bear the brunt of the toxic pollution from ocean shipping. Major retail companies are directly responsible for the dirty air that sickens our youth with asthma, leads to thousands of premature deaths a year in U.S. port communities, and adds to the climate emergency. We are demanding that these practices change.”

The release of the report coincides with the launch of Ship It Zero—a coalition of environmental and public health advocates, scientists, shipping experts, and shoppers who are urging these retailers to prioritize low- and zero-carbon shipping options and to shift entirely to zero-carbon shipping by 2030. That is, of course, a pretty tall order. Yet given the speed at which climate change and extreme weather events are escalating, there’s a strong case to be made that that’s exactly what needs to happen. 

While electrified cargo ships are in their infancy, and the return of sail-powered shipping has yet to materialize at scale, an effort to create demand from major retailers could pay major dividends in scaling up these and other low emission alternatives. And if such efforts could be combined with initiatives to really embrace circular design, material efficiency, reuse, and recycling, then there’s a chance for demand-side reductions in the amount of stuff being shipped too. 

Consumer pressure—and the Corporate Social Responsibility efforts that such pressure will hopefully bring about—are never going to single-handedly deliver low carbon shipping. They are, however, a potential leverage point to start making it possible. And as Gary Cook, Global Climate Campaigns Director at, argued in a statement accompanying the campaign launch, it’s hard to claim that it simply costs too much: 

“In the face of record profits, major retailers and their shipping companies have no excuse to not invest in cleaner ways of doing business. Every year they stall, communities of color will remain saddled with the high costs of air pollution, and we miss the ever-narrowing window to address the climate crisis and ensure a livable planet. It's time for retail shipping giants like Amazon and IKEA to stop moving their products on fossil-fueled ships and commit to 100 percent zero-emissions shipping by 2030.”

Maybe the next time a corporate CEO blasts off into space in their rocket, we could ask them whether they could spare some cash for building a sailboat or two… 

View Article Sources
  1. Rose, Madeline, et al. "Shady Ships." Ship it Zero, 2021.