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Sustainable Supply Chains and Materials

By: Jonathan Parks, Contributor

A huge component of the sustainable supply chain is the focus on lighter and more environmentally friendly materials. Image courtesy of iGPS Logistics.

Both throughout the pandemic, and now as the United States begins cautiously to emerge from it, skyrocketing demand for consumer goods continues to increase the pressure on global supply chains. Managing business logistics has become even more complex as companies compete furiously for the labor and resources needed to meet rising demand associated with new shopping behaviors. As global supply chains expand and evolve, so too does their impact on our planet’s environment — and calls from consumers to improve their sustainability efforts.

While public perception is often fixated on whether a particular product is recyclable, the greatest impact many businesses and organizations have on the environment is through the supply chains that provide such products. Creating a sustainable supply chain can considerably reduce a company’s carbon footprint as well as energy and resource consumption, which comes with many benefits. Implementing eco-friendly business policies enhances a company’s brand as an increasing number of consumers, and Wall Street, recognize the importance of sustainability. Finally, a sustainable supply chain is a leaner, more economical supply chain, which significantly impacts a company’s bottom line.

A huge component of the sustainable supply chain is the focus on lighter and more environmentally friendly materials. To cite just one of many examples, Costco reports that changing its egg packaging to a clear clamshell has reduced waste by 9 million eggs per year. That’s more than a million pounds of food diverted annually from the waste stream, just based on one particular package change to one specific product.

Companies seeking to create sustainable supply chains can implement a variety of strategies:

Partner with Governments

In step with consumer demand, worldwide governments are increasingly pushing businesses to implement eco-friendly policies. It’s not up to businesses alone; governments can play an important partnership role as well. They often offer tax and investment incentives to companies intent on investing in sustainable supply chains. They can also help connect companies with important technological, nonprofit and community partners who can help with sustainable supply chain implementation.

These types of partnerships are critical with local governments as well. Companies developing warehouse sites, for example can work closely with municipal officials and planners to optimize warehouse locations. An optimized warehouse location will help minimize the amount of time delivery vehicles spend in transit or idling, reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the area, and making that part of the supply chain more sustainable.

Invest in Technology

Using lightweight plastic pallets helps reduce supply chain weight loads. Image courtesy of iGPS Logistics.

As noted above, a key aspect to creating sustainable supply chains is minimizing the amount of time an operation’s vehicles are underutilized. Wasted miles, stock balancing and improper order aggregation can lead to inefficient use of transportation that leads to excessive consumption of fuel, tires and other consumables including packaging.  

This can only be accomplished if a company’s transportation network is thoroughly and regularly assessed. Investing in good forecasting software to fully understand challenges like seasonal peaks, changes in shipping demands and transportation issues can help businesses streamline their shipping process, avoid unnecessary trips and costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is not a one-sided effort; both suppliers and customers must work together to provide accurate forecasts to better inform decision-making. Meanwhile, the use of lighter, more sustainable materials — more on this in a moment — also help to decrease the carbon footprint.

Companies that manage truck fleets can also invest in making their vehicles more eco-friendly. This can involve installing telematics technology that enables them to detect equipment issues and vehicle maintenance needs more efficiently, allowing for the correction of problems that contribute to harmful emissions in the early stages. More inexpensive options can include making trucks more aerodynamic by installing roof fairings and gap reducers between the truck and trailer, resulting in shorter shipping trips.

Use Lightweight, Recyclable Packaging and Shipping Materials

This greenhouse gas calculator demonstrates how even small reductions in transport weight can make a significant difference for a company’s carbon footprint. More weight requires more fuel to push heavier and more frequent shipping loads, resulting in higher fuel consumption, higher fuel costs and more harmful emissions. Fortunately, companies investing in sustainable supply chains can use packaging and shipping material that is not only lightweight but also recyclable.

Packaging materials that are not biodegradable or recyclable can linger for an eternity in landfills or eventually wind up in our waterways. Shipping companies can make their supply chains more sustainable by using everything from biodegradable packing peanuts to air pillows and boxes constructed from recycled materials, or even mushroom packaging made from fungus roots and farm residues. These packaging materials are also lighter than more conventional and rigid metal and glass packaging.  

Companies seeking to reduce supply chain weight loads can also use lightweight plastic pallets for shipping. Wooden pallets are heavy and add unnecessary pounds to loads. Plastic pallets, by contrast, can be up to 35% lighter.

Plastic pallets can also be recycled. Wood pallets usually wind up in landfills after their shorter lifespans, contributing to pollution and possibly endangering marine life in the future. Durable plastic pallets, some of which have lifespans of up to 100 trips, can simply be broken down and remade for future use. Their ergonomically friendly weight and absence of nails and splinters can also make this material safer for both workers and automated equipment.

Investing in sustainable supply chains has become even more critical as global supply chains respond to increasing consumer demand. Companies that do so will help fight climate change, enhance their brand value and benefit from reduced Total Cost of Business. WMHS

Jonathan Parks serves as SVP, Supply Chain at iGPS Logistics, a leading provider of plastic pallet pooling solutions. He has more than 15 years’ experience in the supply chain and logistics industry (

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