Hopefully I don't have to explain what the image above is, but I'm sure you're wondering what it has to do with sail freight. Last I checked, a pair of jeans isn't a ship, and it also isn't a set of sails. What it is, though, is freight, the very important second element of sail freight. Jeans are very common, since the 1870s and not made locally today.
Jeans weigh about a pound per pair, on average, and they have for a hundred and fifty years or so. This is a very convenient weight to use for a very simple exercise in looking at supply chains today, and 150 years ago with the same item. We can look at carbon impact, miles of travel, and just the complexity of each supply chain, when we think about jeans then and jeans now.
Just to keep the comparison the same, we'll say the jeans are purchased in Albany, NY 150 years apart: One in 1872 and one in 2022. We'll trace them from cotton field to customer in both periods, and compare miles, carbon emissions, and complexity along the way.
In 1872, the picture is pretty clear. The cotton is grown in Georgia, reaching a depot in Atlanta in the form of a massive bale. The coal-fueled train will carry it to the coast, spewing black soot and carbon the whole way. Our cotton is going to take that train to Savannah, where it's loaded with a couple hundred other bales onto a coastal schooner, which sails to New York harbor. The cotton is offloaded to a mill in New York City, which spins the thread, weaves the cloth, cuts it, and then has it sewn into the final product. Let’s assume the finished jeans go back to the dock and are thrown aboard a schooner bound for Albany. Two weeks later, they're purchased off the shelf by a local ironworker at a store downtown.
Pretty simple, right? Now let's compare it to today.
We'll say the cotton comes from Egypt, because it has a direct route to Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest clothing manufacturing nations. Our pound of raw cotton will start at Port Said, Egypt, loaded onto a ship bound for Chalna, Bangladesh. There, it is spun, woven, cut, and sewn into a pair of jeans. From there, it takes another ship to Los Angeles, California, a journey of nearly 11,000 miles, and hops a truck to Albany via New York City.
In reality, there might be a lot more stops and longer distances involved, too: The cotton might start in Brazil or India, be woven in Bangladesh, cut and sewn in Vietnam or Taiwan or Nicaragua, and then imported through the Port of Los Angeles and cross the United States on any manner of routes. For this article, though, let's keep it a bit simpler.
So, how do these systems compare in terms of journey length and carbon emissions? Those are the two things we're most interested in comparing, and to do so we need to sort a few things out. First, the technologies involved: In 1872, we're looking at schooners and a steam train, while today we're looking at a modern truck and container ships.
Transportation is usually rated in Fuel per Ton-Mile, and since jeans weigh one pound, or 1/2000th of a ton, for every 2000 miles you move them you rack up a ton-mile. So, let's take a look at some figures:
So now that we have the figures in front of us, let's compare:
In 1872, your jeans traveled 1,210 miles, and caused 0.125 pound of CO2 emissions.
In 2022, your jeans traveled 19,138 miles, and caused .503 pounds of CO2 emissions.
Today they travel almost 16 times as far and emit 3.76 times more carbon into the atmosphere than 150 years ago.
Transport may have gotten hundreds of times more efficient than 1872, but since we transport things so much more, we actually cause more damage using our more efficient technology. This is known as the Rebound Effect or Jevons' Paradox: As something becomes more resource efficient, people just do more of it and use a resource more overall. Unless we do something to re-localize production and bring it closer to the point of use, we can't reduce miles traveled, and unless we increase transport efficiency, we can't reduce emissions. The only real answer to the climate crisis is to do both. By combining Sail Freight with relocalization, we can get the most effect out of the technology, but just using sail freight at all would be a major boost to reducing the carbon impact of your pants.
Oh, if you're wondering: 450,000,000 pairs of jeans are sold in the US Annually, or just about one and a half pairs per person. That's 113,175 TONS of CO2 by this model. If you drive an average car with 22 miles per gallon, that's about the same emissions as you driving to the moon and back 586 times, or 18,675 average cars worth of average annual driving. The numbers may sound small when you look at one thing at a time, but at scale they're absurdly large. If we all went a year without buying any jeans, the climate would thank us just the same as if we took over 18 thousand cars off the road. That's a big impact in a short time.
Steven Woods is the Solaris and Education coordinator at HRMM. He earned his Master's degree in Resilient and Sustainable Communities at Prescott College, and wrote his thesis on the revival of Sail Freight for supplying the New York Metro Area's food needs. Steven has worked in Museums for over 20 years.
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