Sustainable Logistics: 4 Ways to Move Towards a Greener Supply Chain

Sustainability in logistics, and shipping in particular, is of vital importance to a sustainable economy as a whole. However, the shipping industry has received less attention from advocates for change than other sectors of the economy, such as the airline industry. So let’s take the time now to turn our attention toward “green shipping” and four ways we can move toward it:

1. The EPA’s SmartWay Transport Partnership

SmartWay is a voluntary partnership program launched by the Environmental Protection Agency to encourage greater sustainability not only in logistics, but in every stage and aspect of the supply chain. At a more concrete level, the SmartWay program aims to reduce emissions while increasing efficiency. Emissions targeted for reduction include carbon dioxide, air-polluting particulates and nitrogen oxides. Partners can contribute by:

  • Developing logistical strategies that reduce targeted emissions.
  • Identifying and employing technologies that reduce targeted emissions.
  • Benchmarking current shipping operations against SmartWay goals.
  • Tracking reductions in targeted emissions over time.

2. Closer ties between customers and shippers

According to a customer survey performed by West Monroe Partners, more than half of those asked would be willing to pay five percent more for products, and wait an additional day for their arrival, if doing so would guarantee sustainable shipping. Yet how would we forge the close connection between customers and shippers needed to act on this opportunity? We might look to the carbon offset programs offered by many airlines for one approach. As any frequent flyer knows, it’s often possible to pay a small additional fee to fund environmental projects aimed at offsetting the substantial carbon emissions released in flight. However, there is no comparable checkbox on the Amazon check-out screen for “green shipping.” Yet if the survey above is a valid guide, then it’s likely that a significant percentage of Amazon’s customers would check such a box if it existed. However, in order for such large-scale, customer-driven “green shipping” to occur, a large number of sustainable shippers would need to participate.

3. Eco-friendly packaging efforts

Here are two areas that the supply chain is already aware of and beginning to address:

  • Overpackaging

An enormous box arrives on your doorstep. After opening it and fishing through the swamp of packaging foam, you eventually find another, tiny box with the earbuds you ordered inside. For an environmentally conscious consumer, this seems pointless and wasteful. Of course, the other side of the issue is that the eco-friendly shipper shouldn’t toss a perfectly good box into the recycling bin simply because it’s too large for the shipment at hand. However, a better balance is certainly available if we work hard to find it.

  • Transitioning to greener packaging materials

A number of sustainable alternatives to polystyrene foam are already beginning to gain traction. For example, Dell and Crate & Barrel have made use of a “renewable, home-compostable” alternative by Ecovative in their shipments.

4. Reduction of shipping damage

Reducing damage to goods in transit is perhaps the inroad to sustainability that shippers have the most control over. One simple method to reduce damage is to encourage or enforce proper stretch-wrapping. Failure to properly stretch-wrap often results in damaged goods, many of which retailers cannot recycle and have to relegate to landfills.

Another method to reduce shipping damage might involve placing renewed attention on the package weighing process, as well as on the differences in weights among various packages shipped together. By redoubling efforts to accurately weigh packages, while optimally arranging them by weight, shippers could further reduce weight-related damage to goods in transit.

The road ahead

We can all agree that moving toward a more sustainable supply chain is a worthwhile enterprise. However, it’s helpful to think concretely by focusing on specific opportunities. The four highlighted above include greater participation in the EPA’s SmartWay program; closer ties between eco-conscious customers and “green shippers”; more eco-friendly packaging; and redoubling efforts to reduce shipping damage. With the help of these initiatives and many others, a sustainable supply chain can help lead the way toward a more sustainable economy as a whole.