FedEx Blog

FedEx Blog

Is the Overnight Envelope Anti-Green?

May 4, 2009

At the recent Fortune Brainstorm: Green conference, the subject of the famous FedEx overnight envelope came up. One of my fellow panelists said he was surprised to still see those envelopes, implying that the contents could easily be transmitted electronically, and that somehow this service was environmentally “wasteful.”

He made me realize how easy it is for people to make the wrong assumptions or hold on to outdated ones.

Mostly, his comment reminded me of how badly many people want binary answers to what are complex environmental questions. “Is it wasteful or isn’t it?” My sound-bite answer is “It’s absolutely not wasteful the way we do it.” But the question deserves more than a sound-bite answer.

FedEx (FDX, Fortune 500) networks are set up to reduce environmental impacts of our customers’ shipments in many ways. We offer customers scores of options that mix and match speed, cost and bulk, depending on their needs. So, if doesn’t have to be there overnight, our customers can and do select lower-cost options.

My fellow panelist said people should just fax documents or send them by emailed PDF instead of shipping them overnight. Short answer: they already do and have for years. We anticipated the impact of that technology decades ago; it’s a big reason we expanded our portfolio. Our overnight envelopes now amount to less than 10% of our daily pieces shipped (down from 17% ten years ago). The envelopes are a much smaller percentage of the total weight of all shipments through our planes and trucks.

We’re even offering our own digital alternative, aimed at large or complex printed products: our FedEx Office Print Online service, from your desktop directly to a FedEx Office (formerly Kinko’s) location in the place the print product is needed, skipping the plane trip altogether.

But customers still have compelling reasons something “absolutely, positively has to be there overnight,” as our ads said long ago. Contracts requiring personal signatures. Test strips enroute to a laboratory. Highly sensitive materials people don’t want digitized. Cherished personal items like photo albums or a family keepsake.

Those overnight envelopes still serve a lot of urgent needs today. And at the end of the day, customers make a price/value assessment when using this service; meaning, if the price of shipping is worth the value of the contents getting to a destination on time and in a reliable manner, they make the right choice.

Most importantly, that overnight envelope isn’t riding an empty plane. Just as we created the overnight document delivery business, the shipping technologies FedEx pioneered and keeps improving have helped enable “just-in-time” manufacturing. So, those envelopes are sharing our planes and trucks with what we call “inventory in motion,” a wide variety of high-value goods that never see warehouses because they can go directly from the plant to the buyer in our custodial care, saving the energy and emissions associated with warehousing goods.

We even encourage our customers to help us maximize the payload of our planes and trucks through a mechanism called “dimensional weight.” If a shipment is light in weight but large in volume, we charge more to ship it than one that’s packaged more compactly. (By the way, the overnight envelope is the most compact, and thus environmentally efficient, package in our portfolio.) Overall, the dimensional weight approach hits a sweet spot of sustainability because it increases the number of packages each vehicle or aircraft carries and thus reduces the emissions generated per shipped package.

By slimming down the bulk of their packages, shippers reduce their transportation costs and improve their own environmental performance by consuming fewer packaging materials. We’re constantly working to increase the recycled and recyclable content in our packaging as well, including those envelopes.

On top of all that, we’ve tapped the latest algorithm technology to optimize our delivery routes, increasing system throughput, saving time, and reducing fuel use and emissions. And we’re the leader in introducing hybrid and electric vans to further reduce emissions.

That’s the non-sound-bite answer, but the message is the same. If it has to be there overnight, FedEx gets it there in an environmentally sound way.

The following post was originally published on May 1 at in response to a conversation with editors at the recent FORTUNE Green conference.


    Jocelyn Baclor says:

    Thanks, I never looked at this issue this way and the points you made certainly clarified this for me.

    Stan Kemker says:

    I think this article misses the point. The question is the envelope anti green. Is it made out of recycled materials, or made by cutting down trees! I might be wrong, but that is how I interpret the Question. Stan

    Adam Davis says:

    Well said! It’s good to have the facts and figures handy!

    John Hollingsworth says:

    Mr. Jackson,
    A very fine explanation to a question which on the outside may seem simple , but in reality and customer service is quite complicated. Most people do not realize the complexity of the Fedex operation, so maybe your answer gives all who wonder just a glimpse of what fedex offers to the customer. Therein is the bottom line. It is called the customer. Fedex delivers and performs impeccably for the customer and their needs. Thankyou for the professional answer.

    brent Pinsent(CA YOWA) says:

    Mitch,thanks for bring up a lot of good points,not only as we ship packages but how to make our packages smaller to we can maximize our plane space. Thanks to technology advancements we can ship a laptop instead of a desk top system,a 60 pound 52 inch flat screen instead of a 300 pound 24inch floor model of yesteryear, etc. The fact that we ship these things in packaging that has a high recycle content is just icing on the cake.Another fact is that we are actually being very green in what we do. When a person orders something online (as an example) we pick it up from the warehouse and ship it directly to the person. rather than a truck going to a warehouse ,picking it up and going to a store so you can get in you car to pick it up,or have the store deliver it to you…something to think about……..

    Steve Stewart says:

    Why can I not send letters in the much more fuel efficient and cost effective FedEx Ground network?

    Glenn Hammack says:

    I am a courier in Louisville Kentucky and want to bring up an issue with our plastic bags the letters are shipped in. Every day I see about 40 large plastic bags of documents come to our station. The bags are emptied and then usually end up in the trash bin. I have been retrieving the bags and using them around the house for trash and lawn debris. I wish we could find a way to reduce the amount of bags we throw away,,, it must be in the thousands per day throughout the U.S. and worldwide. We should be re-using these bags any chance we get and not put these into landfills.

    Mike Lytle says:

    Glenn, great idea! This is something to surely share with your peers and management team. FedEx is encouraging employees at all levels to look at ways to reduce expenses and become more environmentally efficient.

    Mitch Jackson says:

    Dear Stan,
    You are correct that the FedEx Envelope is composed of 100% recycled paperboard, and has been so for a decade. The point of the blog post is accurate, however. The question was around the transportation of documents, not the composition of the packaging. The reality is that even with improvements in digital broadband capabilities, some customers still need to move some documents physically. The goal, and result, is to do it responsibly and resourcefully. This is a FedEx priority. Thanks for your comment.

    Mitch Jackson says:

    Dear Steve, Documents can be sent through the FedEx Ground network. In fact, we handle documents and small parcels in all three of our FedEx Ground networks: FedEx Ground, FedEx Home Delivery and FedEx Smartpost. And, documents are sorted and bagged in aggregate, similar to how FedEx Express does. Interestingly, this is the point of the post. FedEx has a portfolio of services that vary in time commitments and mode of transport in order to meet and satisfy our customers’ needs. But, we strive to meet, and exceed, those expectations resourcefully and responsibly. Thanks for the question.

Post a Comment

You may also like: