Tack to the future: decarbonizing shipping with sail power

As good as local sourcing is, there are some goods that need to be transported long-distances. Whether they are too much in demand and ingrained in the culture or just because a place is not self-sufficient, for example, coffee just doesn’t grow in most of the United States and the one place it does is Hawaii. Many goods need to be imported to Britain or Ireland, as well as other islands. Trade is also good for the world, fostering communication and connection between people and places. 

But moving all of that stuff around is bad for the environment. Cargo ships are big, heavy and often run under flags of convenience, where registration is cheap and inspections can be few and far between. They also spend a lot of time in international waters, where they don’t have to follow many environmental regulations, burning extremely dirty fuels called “bunker fuels”. 

One way to make international trade greener is to revive the use of sail power to move cargo. If it seems a little low-tech, don’t be fooled — any sailing ship is a sophisticated, fine-tuned machine with hundreds of variations from around the world perfectly adapted to local weather, sea conditions, depth and geography and the Royal Navy’s need for ships during the Napoleonic Wars played a major role in developing the Industrial Revolution. 

A sailing vessel

Ships like The Roseway could become a more common sight in shipping.

Steam power only overtook sail power as the means of moving the majority of the world’s cargo in the early 20th century. Clipper ships were competitive cargo haulers until the Suez Canal opened. Modern Diesel-powered container ships, such as the MV Ever Given, which was famously grounded in the Suez Canal recently, is only slightly faster than a clipper and some modern ships are slower. The difference is that a modern vessel will never become becalmed or delayed by contrary winds.

Modern ships have many advantages over their 19th century predecessors. Radio and GPS can help them plot courses around storms or heavy seas, avoiding hazards that claimed the lives of many sailors in the past, while winch systems mean hoisting sails, putting in reefs or stowing them is less labor intensive. In fact, all the infrastructure for transporting cargo on and off the ship can be left on the shore. Because of their small size, sailing ships will not be confined to using the big container ports larger ships do. This will ease congestion in ports, while spreading out port jobs. 

Sail power doesn’t need to be done by replica clipper ships that would be at home in a maritime museum — or a bottle — although a wooden hull and canvass sails are made from renewable resources. Many sail training vessels used by modern navies, such as the US Coast Guard’s Eagle, have steel hulls, as did some commercial sailing vessels.  Today, modern racing boats are made from materials like carbon fiber and feature sails made from artificial materials like nylon and kevlar. Experiments are being made with technologies like rotarsails and turbosails to supplement motors. There are even ideas like “windmill ships” floating around where a ship-mounted turbine is used to produce electricity to power motors, although this seems inherently rather inefficient. 

While there are several companies involved in hauling cargo, at present I only know of one that specializes in selling products shipped sustainable: Shipped By Sail.  

Three Ways to Think About Sustainability

Despite what you might think from the way it’s often used, sustainability isn’t just a buzzword. It’s an actual thing and, if used properly, it can differentiate a business from its competitors, emphasize the value of the product or service, or just save a bunch of money on electric bills. Sustainability for businesses is also something customers and investors are increasingly looking into. 

The flourishing greenery of Acadia National Park is what sustainability hopes to protect.

Acadia National Park

The thing is, sustainability isn’t just one thing and nor is it all about overcoming climate change. Water sustainability, for example, would be important if there were no climate change as aquifers get used up or burgeoning population and industry in the Southwest stretches available supplies. Similarly, solar energy is hugely important to replacing greenhouse gas emitting power plants with zero-emission sources, but the solar industry isn’t really sustainable yet – photovoltaics are made with a lot of glass and compounds that contain toxic chemicals like lead and cadmium, while having short working lives as physicists and materials scientists improve efficiencies and designs. As a result, there is a little known, but very real and growing problem with waste in the industry. Sustainability for businesses certainly should consider climate change, but it’s also much broader. 

Nevertheless, consumers want sustainability and advocates are pressuring suppliers and even banks into taking stands on the issue. Three ways businesses can think about it are 1) life cycle sustainability, 2) Supply chain sustainability and 3) Customer sustainability.

Life cycle sustainability considers the environmental impact of a product or service across its whole life cycle. A good example of this is clothing. Many clothes are made out of cotton, a plant product that must be grown, harvested, processed into fibers, woven into cloth and then sewn and cut into the final garment, which is then shipped to the store to be purchased by the customer. Or, increasingly, it’s shipped to a warehouse of an online retailer and then shipped to the consumer when they purchase it. The consumer then wears it and washes it again and again until it is reduced to rags. Or maybe they wear it once and then it sits in their closet until they donate it or throw it out. Or maybe it survives to be passed down to future generations. Finally, when the garment does finally reach the end of its useful life, what happens to the materials? Is the cotton recycled or thrown away to be taken to a landfill or incinerator?

Supply chain sustainability considers the impact of raw materials and transport on the planet. For example, if the cotton used in the shirt in the first example is grown in Alabama, shipped to Mexico to be spun into thread, shipped across the Pacific to Indonesia to be cut and sewn into the shirt and then returned to the US to be sold in Chicago, supply chain sustainability ideas suggests that the life cycle doesn’t matter so much because of the huge impact on the environment from just transporting all the materials and products around the world. The supply chain is one area where there are not only major gains to be made as far as sustainability for businesses is concerned, since it’s not strictly neccesarry for raw materials to be shipped so far to be processed, but customers will understand it easily because of succesful “farm-to-table” restaurants.

Lastly, businesses can consider the customer’s sustainability. Steps can be taken to minimize the customer’s carbon footprint, by offering home delivery and the product could utilize the least possible packaging, which could all be recyclable. B2B businesses can also provide sustainability advice on reducing waste, recycling greywater, doing transportation demand management to help employees get to work without relying on cars, finding reliable sources of green energy or developing more sustainable product lines. Some lateral thinking can also help: almost 10 years ago the British retailer Sainsbury’s reduced the diameter of the cardboard cylinders used for toilet paper by 11 millimeters, allowing them to ship more in each delivery, saving around 500 truck trips a year. This helped make the brand more sustainable and reduced the cardboard waste the customer had to deal with. 

There are many different ways that sustainability for businesses can work for themselves and their customers. Going green doesn’t have to be a big production or involve lots of very serious statements, businesses just need to decide what kind of processes they want to adopt and follow them.