The art industry needs real radical change – in a maritime sense

Everyone now knows that air travel is not good for the planet. And it is therefore not surprising to learn that the international transport of works of art by air freight is one of the main generators of greenhouse gas emissions in the art world. And then, on top of that, there’s also all the waste generated by the huge volume of single-use materials – especially the plastics – used to package all these works in transit.

This double whammy for the environment which has led to a number of initiatives to try and reduce the environmental impact of all this plastic-wrapped art that is going around the world and to encourage more alternatives green. This is not an easy task, especially now that shipping is accelerating in the wake of the pandemic. “The first thing is to try to do less,” says Tom Woolston, global operations manager at Christie’s, who admits that “shipping is our second largest source of emissions after our buildings.” And while auction houses have stepped up their digital action during Covid and continue to hold more online sales and viewings, there is an equal awareness that screens are no substitute for an encounter with real art.

A more sustainable alternative to air freight is to ship by sea. “Transporting art by air has on average 60 times the climate impact of traveling the same distance by sea,” says Heath Lowndes, Managing Director of the Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC), the international charity dedicated to decarbonising the art world and promoting zero waste. Reducing the art world’s dependence on airfreight is central to the CCG Sustainable Shipping Campaign, launched in May this year. This campaign sets targets for the majority of all international art freight to be transported by non-air methods and with an overall reduction in volume by 2028. It also aims to make the majority of packaging materials reusable or recyclable by 2026 and eliminate single-use plastic products with zero waste by 2030.

“These are very ambitious goals and they will be difficult for us to achieve,” admits Lowndes, while stressing that they are also “absolutely necessary given the climate catastrophe we face”. Prioritize groupings of multi-user shipments; ask shippers for standardized emissions data that would include carbon as well as monetary cost on all quotes and invoices; and insisting on recyclable or multi-use packaging and crates are among the actions suggested by the campaign to help achieve these goals.

The tide (ahem) is undoubtedly turning, with more environmentally conscious galleries and artists now taking an interest in shipping works by sea, whereas in the past sea freight was not only a last resort for works that are too heavy to put on an airplane. Artists Gary Hume and Gavin Turk are among those insisting that their work always travel by ship rather than plane and many logistics providers now offer ocean freight as an option. Christie’s has also taken the unprecedented step of partnering with Crozier art shippers on a monthly ocean freight route between London and New York, and another between London and Hong Kong every two months. Each shipment takes approximately 12 days and leaves 60% of each container for Christie’s, with the remaining 40% made available for consolidated shipments from Crozier Gallery clients.

However, the vast majority of cargo continues to move by air. Because, while it is undoubtedly more sustainable, sea freight is not without its problems. “There are storms, hurricanes and boats sink more easily than planes crash. Containers are old, sometimes leaking and may be susceptible to falling off ships. You can ask for them to go below deck, but there’s no guarantee,” says insurance broker Adam Prideaux. To mitigate these additional risks and in direct response to the growing demand for more sustainable shipping practices, the Joint Specie Committee of the Lloyd’s Market Association (LMA) recently developed a set of guidelines for underwriting insurance for ocean freight (aavailable in full on the GCC website). According to Prideaux, the initiative will help facilitate safer and more art-friendly sea travel and marks what he describes as “a major turning point” in the art insurance market. “Insurers who are dragging their feet to find economical ways to insure art by sea will find that they are going to lose business,” he says. Overall, the consensus among shippers and insurers is that the more demand there is to ship art by sea, the more art-friendly the ocean freight industry will become, despite hurricanes.

Another problem is that of time. Slower is more sustainable, while tight deadlines and fast deliveries come with a heavy carbon footprint. James Quirk, senior marketing director of Queen’s, the London-based fine art shipping and logistics provider, believes that significant change in ocean freight will only happen when its customers change their expectations of when where they want their works to arrive. “A lot of times people want to ship things on an extremely tight time frame when really they’re only in storage at the other end,” he says. “In these cases, what is the rush?” Jason Bailer Losh, director of American art shippers Dietl International, agrees. “Air freight itself is easy to blame, the hardest part is looking at how you actually run your business and then changing the way you do things. It’s more difficult, and that’s what will make a real difference,” he says.

These views are also echoed by Hannah Wright, Gallery Registrar Thomas Dane, who is adamant that “planning, scheduling well in advance and consolidating the transportation of works is the biggest challenge for us. to become more sustainable as a gallery and as an industry. Longer lead times, she says, “will allow for more strategic logistics, more strategic packaging and programming, and a greater overview of how we can reduce our emissions from there.”

So, art lovers, the message is loud and clear from every link in the art supply chain: if you are serious about reducing these emissions, then real step change is needed – pardon the nautical pun . A shift in mindset is needed not only to launch more sustainable ocean wave art, but also generally to slow down, get organized, and think hard about the need to be fast. When shipping a piece of art by sea can reduce its carbon impact by up to 95%, consider whether it really needs to be transported by air and plan ahead to avoid let it be. According to Woolston’s advice at the start of this article, before you even book this boat, doing less should be your first port of call.

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