By firstname.lastname@example.org (Hannah Towey)
Retailers are decarbonizing their supply chains by using sailboats instead of container ships.
Amid port congestion and pricey oil, "sail freight" is gaining traction as a shipping alternative.
This article is part of the "Making Net Zero Possible" series uncovering forward-thinking solutions that can make a net-zero future a reality.
The idea of sustainable transportation likely conjures images of futuristic technologies and electric cars, as well as scientific advances that have yet to be achieved.
But there's a burgeoning industry made up of sailors, coffee roasters, olive-oil companies, and wineries that's reverting to shipping practices of the past to move toward a net-zero future.
Instead of transporting products overseas on gas-guzzling container ships, some retailers are choosing to ship their products via sailboats.
The so-called sail freight movement is a proposed solution to the transportation industry's role as the world's largest contributor of greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. S&P Global Platts Analytics estimated that maritime shipping alone accounts for between 2% and 3% of global CO2 emissions — a number equal to, if not more than, the aviation sector's greenhouse gas emissions.
While it may sound idealistic — even "whimsical," as Bloomberg put it in May — cargo sailboats are currently cheaper and more efficient than container ships, according to Café William, a fair-trade-coffee company that's set use cargo sailboats to ship its coffee beans from South America to New Jersey in 2023.
As Russia's invasion of Ukraine sends the price of oil skyrocketing and the global supply chain continues to recover from COVID-19, cargo sailboats have managed to dodge the port backlogs and rising fuel costs plaguing the modern supply chain, Serge Picard, the owner of Café William, told Insider.
"We used to pay between seven to 10 cents to ship a pound of coffee on a container bunker-fuel cargo ship," Picard said. "Then, all of a sudden, the world goes completely berserk and the price of shipping by container quintupled for a good period."
He added: "It's slowly coming back down, but it's actually more expensive and takes more time to ship by container ship."
On the other end of the supply chain, customers are demanding more sustainable products — and they're willing to pay a premium for it, too, Richard Blake, the founder of Yallah Coffee, a roaster in the UK that sells a 1-kilogram bag of coffee beans sailed from Colombia for $6o, told Bloomberg.
Picard, however, told Insider that "to the displeasure of" his chief financial officer, he planned to keep the price of Café William's sail-cargo coffee equal to the price of coffee shipped on board container ships.
"I know it's not as advantageous right now for the company," he said. "So we're kind of fighting a two-sided financial game here where when we ship on bunker-fuel cargo ships, there's no price attached to the pollution that goes per pound of coffee."
The financial viability of sail freight was the main goal of Danielle Doggett, the founder of SailCargo, Café William's shipping partner.
Doggett started sailing when she was 13 years old and was later introduced to the concept of sail freight while working on the ship Tres Hombres, which sails a sustainable trade route between Europe and the Caribbean. While the mission of Tres Hombres served as a major inspiration, she said the company struggled to prove its financial value, thus limiting its scalability.
"So I really took on the financial planning and working on business plans," Doggett told Insider. "And that's where SailCargo came from — to not only be socially and environmentally creating a return on investment, but also financially."
SailCargo has two wind-powered cargo ships in the works. The Vega, a three-mast cargo schooner, is being delivered from Sweden and is scheduled to ship coffee between Colombia and New Jersey this year.
The fleet's second boat, Ceiba, is a hybrid cargo vessel designed to carry 250 tons of goods. In addition to its three sails, Ceiba will have an electric engine to allow better navigation in ports and during low winds. The engine can either be charged using solar panels or through "regenerating energy" produced by the ship's propellers when sailing.
The Ceiba, which is scheduled to start sailing in 2023, "will be the world's largest active, clean ocean freight vessel," Doggett said.
When the cost of bunker fuel returns to normal, Ceiba's shipping services are expected to be "slightly more expensive than the cheapest forms of shipping," SailCargo told Insider. One kilo of coffee sailed from Costa Rica to British Columbia would have approximately $0.70 additional cost per kilo when compared to conventional container ships, according to the company's estimates.
Speed-wise, Ceiba will be able to attain top speeds of up to 14 knots, six knots slower than a conventional container ship. However, due to the rising cost of fuel, it's common for container vessels to intentionally slow down to half speed. Meanwhile, container ship bottlenecks at major ports around the worldcontinue to lengthen average delivery times.
Ceiba is being built at the AstilleroVerde shipyard, SailCargo's headquarters in Costa Rica. Translating to "green shipyard" in Spanish, the eco-shipyard doubles as a nonprofit that runs educational programs for local residents, as well as an annual tree-planting program to offset the company's carbon emissions.
Julian Southcott, a timber framer and boatbuilder at the AstilleroVerde shipyard, said SailCargo's workers on the ground were "actively planting trees while we are harvesting timber as well."
"Sailing vessels are an incredible design that dates back hundreds of years, and now we're seeing this old technology coming back into this modern day," he told Insider. "I think it's really cool that you can still take something to the other side of the world with zero emissions on an ancient piece of technology
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