Time to get real on environmentally friendly supply chains

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One of the conundrums for supply chain professionals is how to make operations more environmentally friendly at the same time as maintaining growth.

“We must have ongoing GDP growth,” Steve Mulvey, food logistics manager at Marks & Spencer, told delegates at the fifth annual Scala Consulting Logistics Debate.

Mulvey said: “Logistics is not the worst offender by any means, but we are very visible to the general public and lobby groups. We must do our very best and keep focused to achieve whatever improvement we can”. There were good options open within the supply chain, but constraining growth was not one of them, he said.

Among the suggestions he made, which M&S is already adopting or considering, were:

* Reducing fuel, particularly under current conditions

* Overseas consolidation

* Less use of air freight

* M&S is actively looking at coastal shipping to Scotland to rail south – as opposed to Felixstowe and road north.

Trevor Ashworth, director of food & retail logistics of the Co-operative Group said the company’s logistics group was reducing the environmental impact in two areas, buildings and transport. “By introducing greater capacity vehicles we saved 10 million kilometres annually. We have also gained benefits from improved engine specs, including 60 vehicles running on compressed natural gas; transport collaboration with supply chain partners saved 650,000 kms in 2007 and already 450,000 kms in the first half of 2008.”

Bob Diplock, senior partner at Scala confessed himself as a sceptic at heart. “We must be sure that environmental improvement measurements are such that we can demonstrate improvements while delivering better service at same or lower costs.”

Diplock asked: “Are manufacturers likely to reverse recent decisions to make products in Eastern European Countries or the Far East to save on carbon emissions? Will retailers be prepared to cut their margins and buy their goods closer to home?”

Paul Steedman, of The Food Ethics Council, said” “In the food supply chain, food transport is responsible for just 2.5-3.5 per cent of total UK Green House Gas emissions. But the meat and dairy industry generates – eight per cent”. Maybe the future is not one of incremental efficiency gains. There will be radical reconfiguring of how people get their food. These are just possible futures, but they could come true.

“Will today’s DC’s configurations hold up in these alternative worlds? The ‘local’ sector is characterised by low tech penetration and small, half loaded vehicles. But what if everything were local? What ethical expectations will consumers have? What will logistics operators do without big stores? What does efficiency look like in this world? Is efficiency a reality or a pipedream then?”

Malcolm Wilson, managing director UK Logistics at Norbert Dentressangle, said: “Sharing resources is core to our business so multi-user warehouses and transport networks with their associated environmental benefits are at the heart of our culture. Collaboration with our customers and suppliers remains instrumental in the development and achievement of environmental goals.”

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