Sustainable distribution

18th of September 2012
Sustainable distribution

How much of an impact has the recent drive towards greater sustainability had on the distribution business? Has it forced an attitude change regarding transport and logistics on to Europe’s distributors, or are customers relatively unconcerned about sustainability? Ann Laffeaty finds out.

A great deal has been written and said about sustainability over the past few decades. Manufacturers are increasingly building 'green' considerations into their businesses right from the initial sourcing of raw materials through to production, logistics, transport and waste disposal.

Some are stating a preference for dealing only with sustainable suppliers and are scrutinising the practices of all those companies they work with to make sure that these are sufficiently environmentally aware.

Meanwhile distributors are playing their own part in this sustainability matrix by, for instance, streamlining their deliveries to reduce the number of vehicles on the road and to minimise the amount of emissions they create. However if this reduction in deliveries has a knock-on effect on the company’s service standards it may not always be practical. And there is a question mark, too, over whether or not end customers are really concerned about the sustainability or otherwise of their distributor.

Sales director of CJS Portsmouth in the UK Keith Churchill confirms this to be the case, at least in his experience. “Most people talk about sustainability and seem to like the idea of it – until they have to pay for it,” he said.

“At our company we try to set up our deliveries by area and group them together where possible. But there is a lot of lip service paid to sustainability. I think people would like things to be greener - but when there is an economic squeeze on they are more concerned with saving money and just trying to stay in business.”

As far as Churchill is concerned it is the larger paper and chemical companies that provide the driving force behind sustainability in the cleaning sector. “These manufacturers seem to set a lot of store by sustainability - but for the end user it doesn’t matter a jot,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there who just want cheap.”

Independent distributor Smith and Coburn has its own sustainability policy which includes the recycling and reducing of office waste and double sided printing of documents. The company also ensures that all office and warehouse equipment is switched off when not in use and that energy efficient light bulbs are used where possible.

”Customers are encouraged to accept fewer deliveries and suggestions on how to accomplish this are agreed in partnership,” said director Glen Smith. “By effectively planning orders with customers and encouraging staff to car share, the number of journeys made by company vehicles can be limited.”

However he agrees with Churchill that sustainability only matters to a relatively small number of customers. “We have over 100 customers of which I would say only about 10 per cent expect us to be sustainable,” he said. “It tends to be mostly the larger companies that have a strong opinion, but when the recession finally finishes I believe sustainability will be of more importance than it currently is.”

According to sales manager of SA Patient Wendi Tarling the percentage of customers interested in sustainability is closer to 70 per cent. “We try to be as environmentally friendly as we can and ensure the products we sell are sustainable,” she said. “We also play our own part as a company and recycle our waste wherever possible.

Streamline deliveries

“Another initiative has been to streamline our deliveries using the shortest possible route. By doing so we are helping our customers to tick the right sustainability boxes as well as being more sustainable ourselves.”

Rob van der Walle - who is responsible for sales, marketing and purchasing for Euro Products in the Netherlands - says his company has a firm sustainability policy. “Many of the products we sell hold the EU Ecolabel and we are gradually changing our packaging over from boxes to recyclable plastic,” he said. “Our customers tend to be very interested in sustainability. We sell to wholesalers and some of these sell to government and council customers who are committed to dealing with sustainable suppliers.”

The company holds ISO 14001 and also has a corporate social responsibility certificate. “Customers are becoming increasingly concerned about sustainability in the Netherlands and CSR is particularly important to them,” said der Walle.

Director of Netherlands based distributorship Exclusiva Simon van Dijk confirms this to be the case. However he claims that Dutch customers’ interest in sustainability is a relatively recent phenomenon. “Around 20-25 years ago it was only price and economics that mattered when making a sale, but sustainability has become increasingly important,” he said.

“Today’s cleaning contractors are showing more interest in sustainable sales arguments and they are concerned, for example, about whether their paper products are recycled and their chemicals are sustainable. It has also become important to them that minimal water and chemicals are used in the processing of the goods they buy.”

He says Exclusiva has its own programme to reduce energy and water use. “We have built a new carbon-neutral warehouse in the east of the Netherlands that is heated and cooled entirely by solar and water power,” he said. “The government has given us a ‘green’ label for this warehouse. We like to think we are playing our part in helping the future of the world.”

The German-based Igefa Group, a member of the European Inpacs distribution group, claims to be the first European service company to adopt an integrated sustainable management framework according to the new international Sustainability Quotient (UL/SQ) programme.

Business and marketing director Horst Rose claims that customers are becoming increasingly focused on sustainability in the light of climate change, scarcity of natural resources and catastrophes such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

“We are currently trialling various concepts that aim to dovetail remuneration schemes with sustainability goals,” he said. “We are offering incentives for logistics managers based on vehicle capacity utilisation and company car schemes that favour environmentally friendly models. We are also looking at incentives for sales staff to consolidate their sales areas as well as increase sign-up for electronic ordering processes.”

The company promotes the use of sustainable processes with customers and other interested parties via training programmes, trade fairs and various publications. “As part of the purchasing process suppliers are also obliged to abide by the key aspects of sustainability and are evaluated against suitable criteria,” said Rose.

Igefa offers its customers a tailored product range that includes EU Ecolabelled products and sustainable services including consolidated deliveries and electronic invoicing. “The sustainability principle is adhered to throughout all our processes,” says Rose.

Igefa is currently field-testing hybrid delivery vehicles to improve fuel consumption along with improved route planning software and video conferencing facilities for national and international meetings.

“We have recently added an extension in Dresden that is powered by solar panels and we have also built new logistics centres with improved star ratings and solar orientation,” he said. “We use paperless processes for ordering and invoicing where possible, and the paper we do use is recycled.”

Proprietor of Ireland-based Western Hygiene Kevin Collins also feels very strongly about sustainability. “We try to be sustainable in everything we do,” he said. “For example, we were becoming concerned at the fact that our van drivers were spending a great deal of time stuck in traffic jams where they were running the risk of repetitive strain injury when constantly changing gear. So we switched to automatic vehicles which are not only 15 per cent more fuel efficient, they are also much easier for our people to drive.”

He says the company has mapped out all its routes to find the shortest possible journeys to further improve efficiency and reduce emissions.

“Last year 99 per cent of our deliveries were in full and on time,” he said. “If that figure were only 90 per cent it would mean that our operation would not be as efficient and the added costs would inevitably have to be passed on to the customer.”

According to Collins the company uses no paper in its offices and encourages staff to send only emails and texts rather than letters. “We have also put in a lot of shrubbery around our offices to avoid any negative impact on the environment and the community,” he said. “And we have applied for planning permission for a 25 thousand euro water recycling plant which will allow us to use natural rainfall for washing our vehicles and cleaning our yard. We consider this to be an investment for the future.”

According to Collins there is no alternative to being sustainable. “We pass the sustainability message on to our staff and try to build sustainability into all our processes,” he said. “I believe it benefits our business because if we can help the customers to be more sustainable, they will also become more efficient. If everybody made a small contribution to sustainability the total impact would be huge.”


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