My Shipping Dilemma

12/17/2007 07:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today -- December 17 -- is usually the busiest day of the year at the U.S. Post Office, so it's a good time to look at the environmental impact of the shipping and mailing industry.

That's what a nonprofit called Climate Counts has done. They ranked the four leading shippers -- DHL (and its parent, the German post office), the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and FedEx.

"The results show an industry has begun to address its climate impact, but has far to go," says Wood Turner, project director of Climate Counts. The group was formed by Gary Hirshberg, a founder and CE-yo of Stonyfield Yogurt, so that consumers can influence the climate activites and policies of big companies. Among its findings:

- DHL and the U.S. post office lead the sector with scores of 45 and 43 (out of a possible score of 100); UPS scores a 39, and FedEx lags with 28.

- All companies have at least begun to track their climate impact.

- DHL is the industry leader in working to reduce impact, including strong goal-setting, a program that allows shippers to offset their carbon dioxide emissions and executive-level acknowledgment that climate change is one of the company's "most important responsibilities." No surprise there, since European companies tend to be ahead of U.S. firms on the issues.

- Executives at UPS and FedEx support more stringent CAFE standards.

It's easy to quibble with rankings like this one. (There's a link to the report here.) FedEx, for example, has a pioneering partnership with Environmental Defense to drive the adoption of hybrid trucks. UPS does a first-rate sustainability report, and deploys alternative fuel vehicles where possible. But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the rankings are accurate.

What, if anything, are we -- meaning well-informed, thoughtful, caring consumers -- supposed to do about this? And how it is going to make a difference?

As it happens, I had to make a shipping decision of my own the other day. Just before I talked to Wood Turner about shipping and Climate Counts, I got off the phone with Jon Anda, a smart guy and former Morgan Stanley banker who now works on carbon trading issues for Environmental Defense. He recommended a book to me -- Markets and the Environment by Nathaniel O. Keohane and Sheila M. Olmstead -- and I wanted to read it right away. So what do I do? Drive over to my local Barnes & Noble, about three miles away, to get a copy? Or order it from Amazon, which has a very poor rating from Climate Counts, and offers two-day shippin via UPS. I asked Turner.

"I don't have a great answer to that question," he replied.

This points to a problem with Climate Counts -- as well as with other efforts to get us to express our politics by shopping. Decisions about consumption are dizzyingly complex. Should you buy local food? Or organic food, even it comes from far away? Do you patronize Wal-Mart to support its sustainability work? Or stay away because the company opposes unions?

To be sure, I try, as much as anyone, to patronize better companies. I brush my teeth with Tom's of Maine, drink Starbucks coffee, wear Timberland shoes and sit in a Herman Miller chair. I eat a lot of Stonyfield Yogurt, too -- Hirshberg is one of the most forward-thinking business people I've met. But I don't believe that this makes much difference to the world. I mean, as far as Hirshberg knows, maybe the only reason I buy Stonyfield is that I like the yogurt.

Turner understands this. "Your choice to buy from a company that's more climate conscious than another may not send a message to these companies," he admits. That's why Climate Counts encourages visitors to its website to get in touch directly with companies that they support -- or oppose. In fact, the group makes it easy. There's an email link to every company on its scorecard. "It doesn't take lots and lots of emails to get companies to pay attention," Turner says.

That helped me resolve my shipping dilemma. I ordered from Amazon -- despite its zero score -- and thereby saved a car trip to Barnes & Noble, which probably wouldn't have had the book, anyway. The book arrived two days later via UPS. I sent UPS a message, too, telling the company that I was keeping an eye on its climate policy.

Will any of that make a difference? Who knows. But it can't hurt.