There is no industry where the impact of a global movement or business trend is more immediately experienced than in container shipping.  Yet the industry seems to be arriving to sustainability rather late, and quite possibly missing the biggest implications of related trends altogether.

Sustainable business and sustainable design initiatives were initially limited to product manufacturers and retailers.  Now, in the midst of an ever-expanding understanding of the interconnected nature of our world, every industry, including shipping, is paying attention to their energy, resource, and waste management activities.

In exploring sustainability in shipping initiatives, I came across much the same approach that has been applied to the automotive sector.  Every solution assumes steady growth in the demand for shipping.  Initiatives are focused on equipment redesign, fuel efficiency, alternative fuels, and the possibility of a carbon tax (or its equivalent).

While these programs will certainly help the environment and minimize fuel, tax, insurance, and legal costs, they do not address the core challenge facing transportation and logistics providers: a potential drop in shipping demand due to emerging technologies that will supplant or reduce the shipping function in business operations.

One example of such a technology is the evolution of 3D printing. The reality of on-site printing with technologies like Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) have the capacity to significantly impact the need for shipping finished products.  BMW is already using the application for rapid prototyping and is using FDM for some direct digital manufacturing.  The body of the Urbee hybrid car was printed using 3D technology and demonstrates this disruptive technology at work and its growth potential beyond rapid prototyping.

There are many, many more dMASS-related trends that will result in companies delivering more benefits to their customers with less mass.  That means lighter, smaller products with less packaging.  Autodesk is teaching designers about lightweighting, there are daily advances in nanotechnology and dematerialization, and continuous innovations by companies who recognize the mutiple benefits of finding ways to give customers the function they want while reducing numerous costs associated with resource use.  For example, Xerox's sustainability initiatives include the inkless printer project. The inkless printer would use a new type of paper that could be written on and erased (multiple times) simply by applying light of a certain wavelength to it, eliminating the need for ink and reducing paper use.

Companies like Waste Management and Xerox are actually helping their customers use less of their traditional products or services.  Waste Management found that more of its clients were expressing an interest in zero waste, something that could threaten its core business.  The company responded by offering services to help their clients achieve zero-waste status at facilities.  It embraced the idea that waste is valuable and is shifting its business model to take advantage of new opportunities.  Both Xerox and Waste Management are moving toward a more heavily-based service model to manage the risks and opportunities associated with the growing importance of sustainability.

Companies are already actively working to improve the resource performance of their products.  Shipping companies that wish to lead in the future need to position themselves to help their clients succeed in this, to deliver more with less.