Shipping: Effective Actions    Back to Resources



  • The international shipping of artworks is an area with huge potential for carbon reductions. Moving a piece of art by ocean rather than air can reduce its impact on the climate by around 95%.

  • Transportation of artworks - specifically via air freight - is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the art sector.

  • Alternative methods of transportation might take longer but there are other advantages such as cost savings. A small compromise in expected delivery times can lead to a significant reduction in carbon emissions. The main hurdle to overcome in this area are the implications of longer lead times on schedules. But by starting the conversation with clients, artists and shippers, and communicating the impacts vs benefits hopefully the long term advantages will become evident.

  • Easy and cost-effective changes to local transportation methods can also improve sustainability.


Air Freight

Air freight presents a vastly larger emissions potential than other forms of shipping. Thomas Dane Gallery's carbon audit revealed that shipping artworks by plane accounted for 45% of their total emissions in 2018/19 - 97.2 tCO2e in total.

A major reason why flights have such a big impact is the extra warming that comes from burning jet fuel at high altitude, known as radiative forcing (RF).



For each tonne of cargo shipped one kilometre, this chart shows the amounts of CO2 in grams which is emitted per method of transport.


Sea Freight

Shipping artworks by sea results in a significantly smaller carbon footprint and can also be more cost effective. When shipping by sea try, where possible, to minimise the road distance required to and from the arrival and destination ports.



In 2019 - following a commissioned report to compare air and sea freight - artist Gary Hume chose to transport all works for his exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery via sea freight from London to New York resulting in a lighter carbon footprint and significantly reduced costs.




Advantages of Sea Freight                                                        


 Perceived disadvantages for Sea Freight



  • Significantly less carbon  emissions

  • Most cost effective

  • Easier to ship larger and heavier artworks

  • Prices are comparatively predictable and reliable





  • Longer lead times - this can be managed by forward planning

  • Risk of damage to artworks - specify type and position of container in ship

  • Not possible for all destinations - can be managed by combining with road transport

  • Some materials are deemed unsuitable to ship by sea - this is likely to change if sea freight becomes more standard

  • Unexpected custom delays should be built in to the timeline. Hopefully this will improve as sea freight grows in demand


Road Freight

While road freight is still polluting, if the distances involved are relatively small then it is preferable and a cheaper alternative to air freight without significantly impacting the lead time. Consolidated trucks are widely available and should be used wherever possible.


Trucks are still mainly fossil-fuel however electric and hybrid alternatives are coming online with an increasing pace of development year-on-year. This is a quickly evolving area within the transport sector, the advice will change as tech and protocols change.





Advantages of Road Freight              



Perceived disadvantages for Road Freight


  • Significantly less carbon emissions than air, per unit shipped               
  • Often much cheaper than air
  • Easier to consolidate large shipments 
  • Crating is not essential
  • Longer lead times - this can be managed with forward planning
  • Not possible to all destinations 
  • Potentially more customs depending on route



Environmental Considerations of Sea and Road Freight

Sea and even road freight can offer a significantly cleaner and cheaper alternative to air freight even though these options come with their own environmental impacts:



Environmental negatives of sea freight:


  • Untreated ballast water that is released into other parts of the ocean than where it is taken on can introduce new invasive marine species which can damage the natural ecosystem. Ballast water treatment is an increasingly viable option both on ship and at certain ports.

  • Anti-fouling coatings (biocides) are applied to the hulls of ships to prevent growths and maintain speed efficiency. When the hull is cleaned the paints and chemicals used in the paints are transferred to the ocean which is toxic to marine life. 

  • Sewage and garbage from humans on ships often gets transferred to the ocean rather than being properly disposed of which is damaging to marine life and ecosystems.  



Environmental negatives of road freight:


  • Trucks drive billions of miles each year empty or only partially full. Capturing even half of the unused capacity could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 100 million tonnes per year. 

  • Heavy duty vehicles (lorries, trucks etc) are responsible for almost a quarter of carbon emissions from road transport in the EU. This figure is increasing, not decreasing as the need to transport goods goes up. 

  • Heavy duty vehicles comprise only about 5% of all vehicles on the road and generate more than 25% of global warming emissions across the globe.  


Local Transport

Most couriers now offer electric bike options for short distance transport. These have the capability to carry several framed artworks or small paintings and sculptures around a city. Depending on insurance limits for non fine art transport electric bikes are an easy way to move artworks around safely and reduce carbon footprint locally. Check with your couriers to see what options are available.



International Couriers

International deliveries of documents and small packages have a small carbon footprint. Packages are consolidated and the process is efficient. Check with your couriers to make sure you are on a green tariff and not set to a priority service by default.




Effective Actions

  • Prioritise consolidated road and sea freight, over air, for local and international shipments. 
  • Superior service should be predicated on environmental considerations rather than speed of delivery. 
  • Request hybrid or electric transport wherever possible.
  • Plan shipping schedules as far in advance as possible and involve artists and clients in the process so they are aware of the deadlines and shipping times.
  • Use shipping companies who support sustainability.
  • Start a conversation with your insurance company about covering sea freight. 
  • Collaborate with other galleries to coordinate and consolidate shipping wherever possible.   
  • Use Zero Emissions vehicles, or bikes, for local courier and short transport journeys.
  • Check couriers have a green tariff.
  • Keep a clear record of all shipments sent and received and ask shipping companies to keep their own thorough records, in line with the carbon calculator requirements; this will save time in future audits.


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