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The Green Exporter: achieving international growth in a more environmentally-conscious world


Two years ago, the United Nations warned that the planet had just 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe. Now, as 2020 gets into full swing, the latest UN report suggests little progress has been made. In fact, it’s getting worse. 

A study by the Climate Accountability Institute highlighted the effect that some businesses are having on the climate, with the top 20 worst emitters, including Saudi Aramco, Chevron, Gazprom and BP causing a third of all carbon emissions. 

But what can businesses who want to make a positive contribution to changing the direction of travel for the environment do? Organisations still want to (and should want to) strive for profitable growth and globalisation has created so many opportunities for businesses all over the world – especially in the UK where goods exports are at a record high.

But what can environmentally-aware businesses do to support a decline in greenhouse emissions whilst still remaining successful on the international stage? 

How can an exports business become a green exporter?

Understand most environmentally-costly modes of transport

How are your products currently shipped around the world? Cargo ships are the most popular mode of distribution with around nine in 10 items shipped across the globe onboard giant vessels. But shipping produces more carbon emissions than most countries and pollutes the ocean with toxic fuel and other waste too. In fact, ships are responsible for more than 18% of some air pollutants. 

But air freight is just as costly, with global business operations emitting almost 171 million tonnes of CO2 in 2018 – although alternative fuels, operational efficiency and airline carbon offset initiatives are starting to pave a way to a greener airline industry. But this will take time. 

Some shorter deliveries could instead be replaced by road haulage, especially once electric lorries become more commonplace. Train freight (electric) would also be a viable alternative, although the costs and added travel time would need to be factored in. 

Some shipping companies are greener than others, and the US Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay Program can suggest transport companies with the best emission performance.

And the way that product is shipped can also be reviewed. Is the packaging recycled or can easily be re-used? Can your fulfilment and delivery suppliers implement an initiative where packaging is reclaimed once the items are delivered to the customer to be used once more?

Adopt a local fulfilment model

There are a number of distribution, shipping and fulfilment models enrolled by businesses. Some, like just-in-time, are fantastic for cost-saving and space-saving too, but require the frequent shipment of specific parts all over the world. 

An alternative which could work for some companies is to create fulfilment hubs in parts of the world where they’re most active. So, for example, instead of shipping 10 products from the UK to Germany every week, ship 40 in one go and hold the stock. 

Sure, this is an over-simplified view and the planes or cargo ships carrying your original 10 products will still sail without them with other goods on board, but a shift in thinking across an entire market segment can begin to pay dividends over time. 

Change the way business is done 

It has never been easier to conduct international business – without having to leave the office or even the kitchen table. Free business chat tools such as Skype and conference call systems can start to replace some of the meetings which really could have been an email, saving on travel emissions as well as time and costs. 

Of course, some meetings have to happen face to face to form initial relationships, visit sites or inspect procedures. But with 60% of aviation emissions arising from international flights, there’s a good chance a video conference would work almost as well as an in-person one for a large chunk of business meetings and interactions. 

Make carbon savings at home 

Global organisations can have numerous bases and hubs, from head offices to satellite work stations and fulfilment centres – not to mention manufacturing plants. All of these areas can enact localised initiatives to make a positive contribution towards tackling climate damage. 

Read more: UK exports outside the EU growing five times faster

These could range from going paper-free in offices to switching energy suppliers to one which guarantees a certain percentage of supplied power is from a green source, such as solar, tidal or wind. 

Offset carbon contributions

After installing a number of green initiatives, it’s still highly unlikely that an active and successful exports business is going to reach carbon neutral. So, instead, businesses can look to offset the remaining contribution to global warming but offsetting carbon contributions. 

Some airlines have already started to do this, as well as smaller retailers, by making promises to plant trees for every sale or flight – trees which act as natural CO2 sponges. Other approaches could be to support charities which invest in saving natural habitats which have been damaged by an increase in global temperatures, such as coral reefs and forests.

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