Some of the biggest names around have one unfortunate characteristic in common—their cargo shipping operations are major contributors to global climate and air pollution, and even may have a detrimental impact on the health of local port communities.

Walmart, Target and The Home Depot topped the charts as some of the nation’s worst ocean import polluters in 2021, according to Ship it Zero, a climate and public health campaign dedicated to moving the world’s largest companies to 100 percent zero-emissions ocean shipping.

When identifying the primary culprit, look no further than Walmart, which took the spot as 2021’s chief ocean import polluter to the U.S., responsible for 788,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) and 14.9 metric tons of the climate pollutant methane. Its ocean import pollution was heavily concentrated in Houston.

The retail giant’s share represents 22.1 percent of all CO2 emissions generated across the 18 companies analyzed by Ship it Zero.

Walmart was also the No. 1 emitter of methane in this analysis. Methane is 86 times more potent than CO2 on a 20-year timeframe, Ship it Zero says, and is a precursor to ground-level ozone, which can negatively impact local air quality and public health.

The company’s methane emission footprint is likely due to its close relationship with ocean carrier giant CMA CGM, which the report calls “one of the worst maritime climate offenders” due its investments in fossil fuels and operation of several of the largest liquefied natural gas container ships in the world. CMA CGM set a goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Walmart played the greatest role in Houston port pollution, responsible for 208,200 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, 3,200 tons of sulfur oxide emissions, 5,800 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions, and 460 tons of particulate matter emissions on voyages made to the port in 2021.

Unfortunately, the emissions concerns create local health complications. According to the University of Texas School of Public Health, children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel (predominantly Latinx neighborhoods) have a 56 percent greater chance of contracting leukemia than those living more than 10 miles from the channel.

“Reducing emissions from ocean carriers is a priority for Walmart and we work closely with logistics partners, NGOs and suppliers across the retail industry to scale up more sustainable approaches to transporting products,” a Walmart spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “We engage our suppliers including ocean carriers to accelerate efforts to reduce emissions through Project Gigaton, our initiative to reduce or avoid 1 billion metric tons (a gigaton) of greenhouse gas emissions in the global value chain by 2030. We are now more than halfway towards our overall goal of one gigaton reduced or avoided in product supply chains.”

Target tops emissions on the West Coast

And although Target has made an initial commitment to zero-emission shipping by 2040, the mass merchant still had the second-highest maritime carbon and methane emissions of all companies studied in 2021. The retailer produced 544,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, good for 15.2 percent of all CO2 emissions across the 18 retailers studied, and 10 metric tons of methane. Target is the No. 1 ocean import emitter in U.S. West Coast ports, as well as at the Port of Savannah, according to Ship it Zero’s data.

Target had the greatest share of climate and air pollution at the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Seattle and Savannah. In 2021, cargo ship congestion in Los Angeles and Long Beach saw a record-breaking 100+ ships offshore awaiting berths, causing an increase in lung-damaging particulate matter emissions equivalent to emissions from 100,000 big rig trucks per day, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Ship it Zero’s analysis also suggests that Target’s 2021 imports to the Port of Savannah produced 1,800 metric tons of sulfur oxide emissions, 2,900 metric tons of nitrogen oxide emissions, and 260 metric tons of particulate matter, contributing to ongoing environmental inequities in Savannah port-adjacent communities.

Target didn’t respond to Sourcing Journal’s request for comment.

Home Depot, Walmart stray from zero-emission shipping commitments

The Home Depot was the largest ocean import climate polluter in the furniture and home improvement sector, and the third-largest import climate polluter in 2021 across all companies. The retailer’s ocean shipping was responsible for nearly 420,000 metric tons of carbon emissions and 8 metric tons of methane in 2021.

The company’s import pollution is particularly significant at the Port of Newark, N.J., and is responsible for 24.6 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions at the port among the 18 retail, furniture, technology and fashion companies studied.

“We work with our strategic partners to identify opportunities and encourage sustainable shipping solutions as they’re available,” a spokesperson from The Home Depot told Sourcing Journal.

The spokesperson pointed to the company’s partnership with one of its largest carriers, Maersk, which announced a commitment to net-zero emissions by 2040 in January 2022. 

The Ship it Zero report called out Walmart and Home Depot as having made no public commitments to fossil-free ocean transport in their climate or ESG plans, yet produced the highest levels of carbon dioxide, methane and carcinogenic particulate matter pollution of all companies studied.

“Ship It Zero’s latest report shows us that Walmart and Home Depot, in particular, are neglecting their responsibilities to extend their climate commitments to the seas and do right by U.S. port communities,” said Madeline Rose, climate campaign director at Pacific Environment in a statement. “Consumers overwhelmingly want their goods shipped on zero-emission ships and have reported that they’d move their business to companies with a cleaner ocean-climate footprint. We urge Walmart, Home Depot and all companies that continue to rely on fossil-fueled ocean freight services to abandon dirty ships now and compete to put their goods on the world’s first zero-emission vessels.”

It should be noted that the Ship it Zero report outlines 2021 data, and that Walmart, The Home Depot and Target all chartered their own ships before the end of that year, when supply chain congestion and freight rates hit their peak. These retailers continued operating charters into 2022 amid strong consumer demand to start the year, which only compounds the issues experienced the year prior.

Using publicly available data and commissioning research from Stand.Earth Research Group (SRG) and University Maritime Advisory Services (UMAS), the study estimates that the 18 retail, furniture, technology and fashion companies studied were responsible for 3.5 million metric tons of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions as a result of importing their goods into the U.S. in 2021—equivalent to the climate emissions of 400,000 U.S. homes.

Nike’s the worst clothing offender

Nike was the top ocean import polluter of all the fashion companies analyzed, responsible for 87,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2021. Across all companies, Nike was 10th in emissions.

The Port of Los Angeles is the principal gateway handling Nike’s imports into the U.S., where it generated 48,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, 710 metric tons of sulfur oxide, 1,200 metric tons of nitrogen oxide, and 100 metric tons of particulate matter in 2021.

According to the report, Nike has played a disproportionate role in escalating a longstanding public health crisis in Black and Brown working-class port-adjacent neighborhoods in the Los Angeles airshed.

Nike didn’t respond to Sourcing Journal’s request for comment.

“Some companies have made a commitment to zero-emission shipping such as Amazon, Target and Ikea, which represents a step in the right direction but it simply doesn’t go far enough,” said Kendra Ulrich, shipping campaigns director for “Today’s report shows that brands across a spectrum of industries, from fashion to tech, need to increase their targets to achieve 100 percent zero-emission shipping by 2030. They must act now and rapidly clean up shipping to ensure a healthier, cleaner tomorrow for our communities and our oceans.”

Other companies analyzed include Amazon, Costco, Ikea, Adidas, H&M, VF Corp., Ashley Furniture, Lowe’s, Living Spaces, Williams Sonoma, Dell, HP, LG and Samsung.

California ports still handle brunt of cargo

The Ship it Zero analysis also dug deeper into the ports themselves, as well as the impact they have on emissions.

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach processed the largest share of company cargo imports investigated by the study, with over 40 percent of imports by twenty-foot equivalent (TEU) and 35.5 percent of total carbon emissions created through these companies’ maritime imports to the U.S.

If anything, this illustrates the enormous responsibility that the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have to catalyze the clean energy transition in shipping and end ship pollution at the ports.

On the other hand, The Ports of Seattle, Tacoma and the Northwest Seaport Alliance handled some of the cleanest, least carbon intensive imports. This suggests that these Pacific Northwest ports are well positioned to lead the U.S. in developing credible, high-ambition green shipping corridors. Imports to these ports were generally dominated by the big three companies—Target, Walmart and Home Depot—together responsible for 66.4 percent of containers and 70.1 percent of CO2 generation at the Port of Seattle. The ports themselves and Target, Walmart and Home Depot must collaborate to mitigate pollution.

The Port of Savannah handled the most retailer containers on the East Coast, processing 13.3 percent of the national total. Responsible for 15.7 percent of total CO2 generation, Savannah had the second-highest carbon intensity per container of any port throughout 2021, second only to Houston.

The Ports of New York and New Jersey together handled 9.6 percent of container traffic analyzed, representing 10.5 percent of cargo CO2 generation in this study.

Make commitments for 2030, not 2040

Ship it Zero stressed that major U.S. importers across sectors must make more near-term, year-over-year commitments to abandon dirty, fossil-fueled ships this decade.

Although the research highlighted the initial voluntary long-range zero-by-2040 commitments of major companies, this progress is “not sufficient,” Ship it Zero said.

“Consumer-facing brands wield enormous power as major clients of container shipping carriers to help end the era of fossil-fueled shipping and catalyze the rapid shift to emission-free shipping,” the report said.

The firm urges all brands to immediately launch or enter a zero-emission shipping fuel buyers alliance like the Zero Emission Maritime Buyers Alliance (ZEMBA) to accelerate zero-emission ship development.

Ship it Zero said this commitment to 100 percent zero-emission shipping must be set for 2030—not 2040— and include year-over-year greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets.

Additionally, the campaign also urged brands to ask carriers to demonstrate immediate and year-over-year emissions reductions during contract negotiations.

“Any ship on the water today could be retrofitted with wind-assist propulsion or other emissions reducing technologies; public health and the climate cannot wait for an entirely new generation of vessels,” the report said. “Move your business away from carriers that do not offer these solutions.”

ESG, SDG, CER, GRI, FSC, LCA, WELL Logistics, Topics, carbon emissions, Nike, ocean freight, pollution, Target, Walmart Read More 

Glenn Taylor