The shipping industry's struggle with sustainability

The shipping industry's struggle with sustainability

One of the biggest obstacles to running a sustainable business is the large body of water between New Zealand and everything else. The rest of the world might feel closer than ever, but not when you’re looking at the cost of shipping your recyclable toothbrushes home from China.

Wanting to move stuff from one place to another has been causing the world problems for a while. Continents get accidentally discovered. People get into fights. The atmosphere gets warmer.

And since there’s only so much local buying we can do, freight’s here to stay.

The trick now – and into the future – is in making freight more efficient. At the moment, the average truck carting stuff around Europe is only 55 percent full, and a quarter of them are empty (there’s that pesky and problematic matter of returning them to home base for the next load).

Enter a bunch of clever Belgians who offer carpooling, but for cargo. Thanks to University of Antwerp research, Tri-Vizor has a giant database of European freight flows, and its services involve synchronising dispatches from different supply chains so that trucks end up on the roads packed to the brim, splitting the costs (and gains) fairly between companies involved.

For those not involved in shuttling stuff around Europe, New Plymouth-based Findatruckload operates a low-fi version of the service in New Zealand.

Post information about your homeless cargo or empty truck’s travel plans and see if you meet your roading match.

But roads aren’t the most energy-efficient way to transport things – rail’s better, and the ocean’s usually the best.

Here’s some good news: about 20 major players in shipping industry are already trying to solve their own problems. The Sustainable Shipping Initiative wants to get everything sorted out by 2040 – what kind of fuel to use, and how to reduce pollution and emissions. One company has already figured out how to build ships only out of parts that can later be recycled and used in other ships, eliminating what was formerly a huge source of landfill waste.

We’ve been talking so far about moving inanimate objects around, but moving people around has got problems as well.

In February, Yahoo boss Marissa Mayer pissed off the whole internet by issuing a blanket ban on working from home. It’s not only a flexibility issue, but a green one as well; commuting isn’t an efficient use of resources, and many studies show its impact on raising stress levels. Maybe you want to allow employees to arrive earlier or later to miss your city’s rush hour, and work from home in the interim. Maybe there are some days you don’t need their physical presence at all. Maybe you could build a giant waterslide between your office and the suburbs.

Okay, some solutions are more realistic than others. But the fact remains that things improve when you completely ignore the status quo – or even better, kick it in the shins.