Eco dogfight: UPS says it's way greener than FedEx

Not too long ago, getting a package to arrive overnight was a good enough marketing claim to win over customers. But in this era of sustainable business practices, everyone from Wal-Mart (WMT) to Walt Disney (DIS) is burnishing their eco-cred in the hopes of coat-tailing on the current green ethos.

The green factor increasingly plays a role in customer decisions. Which is probably why package and shipping giant United Parcel Service (UPS) has come out swinging against arch-rival Federal Express (FDX). The two mega-brands have been locked in a public dogfight over who's green cred is more legit and which company is actually running a more sustainable operation.

The battle was kicked off by the latest Newsweek magazine's greenest company rankings, which put UPS at No. 85 ahead of FedEx at No. 93. UPS began trumpeting this win in the blogosphere, chatting with ClimateBiz about why Big Brown is absolutely, positively greener than FedEx.

To get to the bottom of this brouhaha, I contacted both companies. Only one got back to me, UPS. Which probably tells you something about who really is the winner here. According to UPS data, which is based on public reporting of sustainability practices by both companies, Big Brown bludgeons FedEx into eco-oblivion.

The biggest chunk of emission for both companies is, of course, jet airplanes. Jets are notorious as one of the biggest contributors to global warming gas buildup on a per mile traveled basis. But according to the UPS data, there is a huge difference in the amount of CO2 spewed out by the two companies jets. FedEx planes put out roughly 53 percent more CO2 per air-ton mile compared to their more efficient brethren at UPS.

True, both companies have an ambitious goal of jet CO2 emissions reductions of 40 percent from baseline levels by 2020. And FedEx, according to its corporate sustainability report, has cut it jet-caused CO2 emissions by nearly 4 percent in the last five years. But UPS got a big headstart. It started swapping out gas guzzlers for more efficient planes back in 1990, over a decade before FedEx got the same religion, according to UPS Director of Reputation Management Lynette McIntire. "We've taken the last 20 years and replaced many of our inefficient aircraft. We started that in 1990. That's why there's such a big gap between our metrics today on the airline side," says McIntire.

How about fleets of vehicles running on alternative fuels? FedEx has touted its work to develop semi-trucks for its own fleets. Those developments have been adopted by numerous other fleets, including those of UPS. Take that, Big Brown. Well, not so fast, FedEx. "They'll talk about their alternative fuel fleet. But we've got 10 times the number of alternative fuel vehicles in use than they do. We've got biodiesel, liquid natural gas, compressed natural gas, propane -- you name it," says McIntire.

Well, surely the fact that FedEx owns its own long-haul trucking fleet and has one of the most sophisticated hub-and-spoke package routing systems in the business counts for something, right? And FedEx has extremely advanced routing software to ensure its drivers travel as few miles as possible. No doubt, but UPS claims improvements in its routing software -- which dramatically reduced the number of left-hand turns on all UPS routes -- have avoided 100 million extra driving miles since 2003.

And, says McIntire, UPS now uses rail transit for packages that don't need high-speed delivery and are fine to arrive in three days or more. Rail is, of course, far more eco-friendly than either planes or trucks. I'd love to hear back from FedEx on this one as I'm sure they'd have some interesting things to say in reply. Also, all of this posturing could represent a bit of green-washing. Recent research into the topic has found that the majority of companies touting green qualities for their products were not being entirely honest, as this Time magazine article explains.

Then again, it's hard to lie about things like jet plane CO2 emissions which can be tracked by looking at fleet composition and corresponding likely fuel efficiencies. Regardless, a marketing war over which company is doing a better job of saving the environment can only be viewed as a good thing in a world that is getting hotter and hotter over time.

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