Why art’s sustainability shouldn’t come at a cost

Some of the contents of this article were originally discussed at a panel event entitled ‘Painting a Sustainable Future’, hosted by Lockton at Tate Britain on Friday 13th October.

The need to limit the impacts of climate change and achieve net zero are placing the art world under increasing pressure to decarbonise its operations. Opting for sea freight, as opposed to traditional air freight, is among the sector’s greatest tools in this regard. Doing so is not without its challenges, however, including the threat of higher insurance costs. Nevertheless, as insurers’ comfort with shipping fine art as sea freight grows, it becomes increasingly possible to envisage a sustainable future for art.

The environmental cost of shipping art

It is difficult to grasp the scale of global carbon emissions. According to a report (opens a new window) by non-profit Julie’s Bicycle, the art world’s emissions stand at approximately 70 million tonnes CO2e per annum, the equivalent of 159,000 hectares of solar panels’ annual generation of electricity.

Nearly 85% of this footprint is accounted for by visitor travel emissions. Of the remainder, approximately a fifth is made up of art shipment and business travel – relied upon for the movement of art to and from fairs, museums, galleries, and collectors’ homes. In total, this equates to an estimated 2 million tonnes CO2e.

Various methods exist for shipping art, including by air, sea, or road, each producing varying levels of carbon emissions. The former is the most carbon-intensive; according to the same report, transporting half a tonne of art from London to New York is ~55 kg CO2e by sea, versus ~3,000 kg CO2e by air. Based on these estimates, shipping via sea amounts to a greater than 95% carbon emission saving.

Barriers to sustainability are declining

Despite its environmental advantages, sea freight is a historically unpopular means of transporting art. Although a necessity for large or heavy works, sea transportation is slower than air, and may be subject to delay as a result of weather hazards or port congestion. Improperly packed goods, meanwhile, may incur damage during transit. These obstacles have been compounded by the insurance market, which historically has viewed shipping fine art by sea as high-risk, largely for the reasons above. As a result, sea freight has commanded a higher insurance cost, further dissuading the sector from embracing it as a viable means of transportation.

Yet, these perceptions have begun to change in recent years. Insurers have grown increasingly comfortable with fine art as sea freight, comforted by improvements in packaging technology. At the same time, advancing tracking devices (often known as ‘data loggers’) have provided greater insight into the environments that artworks are likely to experience when at sea, including the temperature and humidity levels of storage facilities.

By contrast, the same technologies have exposed potential areas of concern with air freight. For instance, artworks’ exposure to severe temperature variations, such as when moving from the heat of airport tarmac to the cold of high-altitudes, may increase the likelihood of degradation. Orientation-related damage, whereby containers move considerably while in transit, is also of increasing concern. These factors are combining to reduce the cost advantage of insuring air freight. Formerly half the price of insuring shipments by sea, it is now closer to two-thirds of the cost.

How to decarbonise the art sector

In principle, the art world – with its fixed calendar of fairs and exhibitions, and advanced programming – makes it well-placed for a transition to slower, more sustainable methods of transportation. Nevertheless, major challenges remain for the art sector as it looks to improve its environmental impact, which it will be up to institutions and collectors to address.

Potential measures to reduce shipping emissions include:

  • Shipping artworks via sea further in advance of known exhibition dates

  • Reviewing the use of couriers when artworks are shipped, to avoid doubling the footprint of a given shipment

  • Maximising the use of shipping containers, including collaboration with other institutions e.g. the agreement (opens a new window) signed between Crozier Fine Arts and Christie’s

  • Reusing containers and crates, or building containers from sustainable materials

  • When quoting for shipping costs, and where applicable, clients should seek out (or be provided with) quotes for both air and sea freight

  • Streamline packaging where possible, while still observing professional packaging standards

Other measures may not only help to reduce emissions, but can also help to mitigate the risks associated with shipping art:

  • Increasing quotas for locally or domestically produced artworks, to reduce shipping demands

  • Lengthening the run for exhibitions, thereby requiring them to be transported less frequently

  • Where air freight is required (e.g. international exhibitions), plan routes in advance to avoid unnecessary emissions

  • Where possible, consolidating sea freight with transportation via train and road

  • Ensuring proper checks are carried out on artworks prior to the shipping process

For more information, please visit our Fine Art (opens a new window) page, or contact:

James Ferrer, Head of Fine Art

E: james.ferrer@lockton.com

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