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Sustainable Shipping: Exploring the Environmental Impact of Sea Freight vs Air Freight

In today's globalised world, the shipping industry plays a vital role in the movement of goods across continents. As consumers become increasingly conscious of the impact their choices have on the environment, sustainability has become a matter of priority for consumers and businesses alike. In fact, a 2022 report from Deloitte found that 67% of companies have started using more environmentally friendly materials, such as lower-emitting products.

In this article, we will delve into the environmental implications of sea freight and air freight, comparing the two modes of transport and assessing their impact on the environment while shedding light on whether shipping items via sea or air is more suitable for your business needs. It’s time to make conscientious choices in a world that knows the value of sustainability.


What is sea freight?

Sea freight is an essential part of global logistics which involves the transportation of goods across oceans and seas using cargo ships. This method offers cost-efficiency and is particularly suitable for moving large volumes of goods over long distances - especially if they’re heavy or large items. Sea freight boasts immense capacity, making it an ideal choice for transporting bulk commodities and oversized items.

While the transit times of sea freight may be longer compared to air freight, sea freight's flexibility in accommodating various cargo types, integration within complex supply chains, and adherence to international regulations and customs procedures solidify its role as a crucial and essential element of international trade.

With this in mind, sea freight is the environmentally savvy choice of all the freight options, as it emits fewer carbon emissions per ton-kilometre. However, while sea freight currently leads the race for being environmentally friendly and sustainable, the sector is still actively exploring ways to improve, such as adopting cleaner technologies and optimising operational practices.

What is air freight?

Air freight is an equally as vital component of modern logistics as sea freight. However, air freight revolves around the swift movement of goods using aircraft. It offers unparalleled speed and efficiency, making it a preferred choice for time-sensitive shipments. With rapid transit times compared to other modes of transportation, air freight enables goods to travel hundreds of miles in as little as several hours instead of several days. This swiftness is especially advantageous for perishable items, high-value goods, and urgent shipments, allowing businesses to respond swiftly to market demands and supply chain fluctuations.

Beyond its speed, air freight exemplifies reliability and global connectivity. Its ability to traverse continents swiftly and access hard-to-reach destinations makes it an integral part of many supply chains, bridging the gap between manufacturing hubs and consumer markets.

While air freight shines in terms of speed and reliability, it's important to note that its environmental impact is higher compared to other modes of transportation. The carbon emissions per ton-kilometre for air freight are considerably greater than those of sea freight, and the average load is much less too. While ships are capacity-rich and more sustainable, aeroplanes are speedy and efficient. This trade-off of sustainability and speed is something that every business should consider in its logistics strategy.


Sustainable shipping initiatives and recommendations

Recognising the need for sustainable shipping practices, various initiatives and recommendations have emerged in recent years. The concept of "slow steaming" has gained traction in the shipping industry, where vessels operate at lower speeds to reduce fuel consumption and emissions. This approach not only reduces carbon emissions but also helps protect marine ecosystems by minimising underwater noise and the risk of collisions with marine life, such as whales.

As a result, several major shipping carriers have become associated with the initiative, such as COSCO, Maersk Line, and the United Arab Shipping Company. It’s important to understand though that by taking up the initiative, the program pays ,500 USD to any shipping company that agrees to slow their ships; a very influential incentive.

Additionally, the use of alternative fuels and technologies is being explored to make shipping more sustainable. Biofuels, for example, offer a potential solution to further reduce the environmental impact of shipping. Several companies are also investing in the research and development of electric and hybrid vessels, which could revolutionise the industry in the future.

Choosing between sea freight and air freight for your business

When it comes to choosing between sea freight and air freight for your business, it is essential to consider both the environmental impact and the specific requirements of your supply chain. While sea freight may be the more sustainable option in terms of carbon emissions, air freight offers speed and efficiency that can be crucial in certain industries.

To make an informed decision, businesses should conduct a thorough analysis of their transportation needs, including factors such as product characteristics, lead times, and customer expectations. It is also worth exploring alternative transportation modes, such as road freight, which may offer a balance between speed and sustainability depending on the specific trade routes.

Sustainability as part of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

While air freight is a much faster way to deliver your goods, businesses should consider how sea freight can be incorporated into their CSR strategy. For many businesses, being both sustainable and environmentally conscious is hugely important. However, choosing to solely ship cargo via air freight instead of sea freight may be an unnecessary decision.

Sea freight services present a distinct proposition, underscored by compelling factors. Despite air freight's expediency, sea freight offers a markedly more cost-effective alternative that also does less harm to the planet. Due to sea freight having lower carbon emissions than other methods of logistics, environmentally minded businesses can incorporate the use of sea freight into their corporate social responsibility commitments and cut down on emissions.

Future trends in sustainable shipping

Looking to the future, the shipping industry will continue to explore sustainable solutions. The development of new technologies, such as autonomous vessels and smart logistics systems, holds promise for reducing emissions and improving overall efficiency, while collaboration between stakeholders, including governments, shipping companies, and consumers, will be crucial in driving sustainable practices and shaping the future of the industry.

In summary, the environmental impact of sea freight and air freight is clear, with sea freight generally being the more sustainable option. However, businesses need to carefully consider their specific requirements and strike a balance between speed and sustainability. The shipping industry is evolving, and sustainable practices are gaining traction, offering glimpses of a greener future. By making conscientious choices and embracing innovative solutions, we can reduce the environmental impact of global trade and create a more sustainable shipping industry.

If you’re looking to book a low-cost sea freight service, get an instant sea freight quote here.

Alternatively, to book a low-cost air freight service, then you can get an instant air freight quote here.





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