Mean to be Green

May 7, 2008
How important is sustainability? Logistics needs a significant home-grown effort.

The question is starting to surface, “How important is sustainability?”

For executives at the recent Transportation Sales and Marketing Association, the question has financial as well as market implications. For shippers and other buyers of transportation and logistics services, the benefits or penalties of a green supply chain may be indirect.

Despite the significant amount of play Al Gore has received for his “Inconvenient Truth” and continued efforts to keep the concerns over global warming, carbon footprints and sustainability center stage, the unified green movement is off to a slow start. Not so on a regional basis, and that’s troubling for logistics.

Global supply chains face a patchwork of regional regulations, initiatives, concerns and public opinion about the impact not only of manufacturing operations but also the logistics networks that support them.

When charts of airborne emissions show vehicle exhaust accounting for the majority of one type of pollutant or another, the focus quickly narrows to trucks. Aircraft, nearly all of which carry some form of freight, release their emissions directly into the upper atmosphere, and global initiatives have been driving those emissions lower at a very substantial cost to the industry. Bulk modes like maritime and rail get a little less attention and blame, and one carrier has sponsored a public service message on National Public Radio in the US highlighting how far it moves a ton of freight on a single gallon of fuel.

So, how much must the industry do to prove it is a good steward of the environment?

The high cost of operating a transportation company (even without the recent run up of fuel prices) dictates efficiency. Using combination modes to improve efficiency, employing sophisticated technologies to reduce empty and out-of-route miles and to track and communicate with drivers to fine tune that effort are all transparent to the general public. And, more importantly, are probably unknown to regulators. So, much of the best practice that is just good business contributes to sustainability but goes unrecognized.

This is not a carrier problem or a concern for logistics providers, it’s an industry problem that requires the attention and efforts of shippers, consignees, logistics service companies, carriers, professional and trade associations and other members of the community who can mobilize to develop and present solutions.

Many carriers are already starting to experiment and use hybrid or alternative-fuel vehicles, reduce dependence on diesel-powered support equipment and join initiatives like the Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay program. Logistics services that operate facilities are taking steps to reduce waste and energy use and improve environmental impact wherever possible. The companies manufacturing, importing or exporting goods are paralleling these efforts with some of their own internal programs.

In the absence of a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” or even an “Energy Star” designation to identify which supply chains are going green, there is no simple way to join the movement and visibly demonstrate your commitment. If history is an indicator, the industry will face increasing pressure from regulators across the globe if it cannot demonstrate proactively that its core best practices are green.

Until a neutral body takes on the task of certifying supply chains as green, or until we get a recognizable spokes-mascot to carry the message, if you mean to go green, you’ll have to mount your own public awareness campaign. A good start is to ensure your suppliers and partners are all actively engaged in green initiatives and promote those relationships along with your own accomplishments.

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