The Sustainable Supply Chain: One Warehouse at a Time

A lot of companies write about their commitment to sustainability… and a lot of it is nonsense. A lot of those companies have stock photos of ladybirds and sunflowers on their websites, and are still operating out of the same big, leaky old tin sheds as they were two decades ago.

You can do better. I’ve chosen to look at warehouses today, but a lot of these principles could also apply in a manufacturing business, or elsewhere. Here’s ten points that you might want to think about, on your route to “going green”…

1. Crowdsource your Brainpower

For every pair of hands you employ, you get a brain thrown in for free. Make use of them all. Get as many staff as possible involved from day one, so that you can all share some early ‘wins’. When proposals are seen to be acted upon, more ideas will follow. When you’re chasing efficiencies, if you keep looking, you will keep finding them. Don’t hire an expert to tell you how become more efficient; let your staff tell you.

Maintain a list of suggestions; find the cost of implementing a change, and the savings that are anticipated. Calculate the payback period, and use this information as a basis for deciding what strategies to try first. For example, I know of a company where there was a staff suggestion that the thermostat could be turned down a little, if all staff were given warm fleeces. If this suggestion had come from management, I suspect that it would have been met with a lot more resistance… but because it was ‘home grown’, it was implemented – and proved surprisingly popular with all parties!

2. Sweat the Small Stuff

If you don’t have any ‘big’ ideas, don’t worry about it. Nobody else has figured out how to “save the planet” yet either, so you’re in good company. Like ‘zero defects’, true sustainability may be something that you will never achieve, but you can continue to move towards it. Begin with the low-hanging fruit: quick fixes that are obvious, and that will pay back soonest. For example, making sure that doors and windows fit properly when closed; that could save a great deal on a heating bill.

3. Light Smarter

Electric light doesn’t cost very much, compared to power needs such as space heating, but it’s a common starting point. It’s not a bad idea; low-energy lighting is reasonably easy to retrofit, and it’s affordable. The amount of energy saved can be seen immediately, and there’s also a reduced maintenance requirement, as the bulbs generally last longer… but think carefully. This apparently simple aspect of going ‘green’ is not without pitfalls: some low-energy lights warm up slowly, making them incompatible with the motion sensors you may already be using to save energy, and posing a hazard when used on stairways and the like. Their life is shortened considerably when used in fixtures that allow them to overheat, or when stressed by repeatedly switching on and off. Deploy with care!

An aspect of lighting that is often neglected is to have your skylights cleaned! Spending money to light the interior of a warehouse during the hours of daylight is just silly – although perhaps not as silly as a business I heard recently, crowing about how they had installed a solar-powered lighting system in their boardroom. Energy-wise, what happens in the boardroom hardly matters, compared to the operations of the business as a whole. If you want a ‘green wig’, go for it… but if you’re serious about sustainability, you don’t convert sunlight into electricity at maybe 22% efficiency, to then feed the electricity to state-of-the-art LED lighting at (being generous…) perhaps 15% efficiency.

Well-lit warehouse interior

Looks nice and bright, doesn’t it? But what’s wrong with sunlight?

The developing world is far smarter when it comes to solar lighting: the ‘Moser lamp’ is a plastic bottle filled with water and bleach, set into the roof of a shack, where it transmits sunlight to the interior. These things are taking off in a big way in the Philippines, and elsewhere: see ‘Liter of Light’. In the West, an architect can do the same thing for you with a ‘light pipe’ – at a few thousand times the price. For now, though, just clean your damn skylights!

4. Save Water Too

Saving water doesn’t just save you money; it’s good for the whole community, if water is scarce… and even where water is plentiful, it doesn’t come without a carbon footprint. You can save water inside the facility by fitting water-saving devices in the restrooms (of course) but don’t forget to look outside as well: changing the way you wash your vehicles might save a lot of water, as can drought-resistant landscaping in your grounds.

Housing Storage Supply Warehouse, Williams Air Force Base

If you choose the wrong plants, keeping a strip of land looking nice could use an awful lot of water.

5. Take Steps to Control Crime

Crime costs you money – even if you’re fully insured, because those premiums cost money too… but crime causes environmental harm as well: every item that gets stolen or damaged is replaced with a new one for the legitimate recipient, and that means more materials, more energy and more effort all along the supply chain. It’s not only major robberies that pose a threat, but also the ‘background noise’ of opportunistic pilferage. This can play hell with your inventory control system, and degrade your ability to deliver on time, so there’s every reason to secure and monitor your inventory. Other crimes such as arson must also be defended against, and extending your concern for employee welfare is a good idea, perhaps improving the safety of employees with additional CCTV or secure car parking.

6. Support your Community

Being sustainable isn’t just about the environment; to ‘planet’ and ‘profit’ you must add ‘people’, and that’s not just those who work for you: it’s always worth maintaining good relations with the local community, because you never know when that might pay dividends.

Taking part in local affairs might be as simple as sponsoring events, or supporting employees who want to perform some service within the community. If you find that your business is always being hit up to provide prizes and the like, since refusal often offends, a good trick is to take note of every request that comes your way, and have a periodic draw to determine which charitable project gets your support.

Remember industrial symbiosis: your waste might be of tremendous value to somebody else. If you’re ankle-deep in packing peanuts, you could pay to send them away… but you might find that another local business would be delighted to come and collect them. They might be shipping products of their own, or they might even be a hydroponic grower.

7. Focus on Inactivity

Listing the energy cost or hazards associated with each activity is all very well, but a lot of ‘leakage’ occurs during non-productive moments, such as during shift changes or in the middle of the night while your facility is deserted. In the same way that Toyota targeted energy usage at times when cars weren’t coming off their assembly lines, you can use consumption during inactive times as a red flag for pollution. If that truck isn’t about to move… why is the engine idling? If that section of the building is unoccupied… why are the lights on? Smart metering may help here, but common sense is a pretty good tool for identifying areas for improvement as well. If your warehouse has surplus space, that’s another form of inactivity: you’re securing, and perhaps lighting and heating that volume, and you don’t need it: be aware of this.


8. Avoid Expiries

Goods that go out of date are even worse than those that get stolen – because you also have to pay to get rid of them. I know of a company that used to manufacture sunscreen in vast quantities, and then lose track of it within their storage facility. Retailers wouldn’t accept sunscreen if it was close to its expiry date, so whole pallet-loads often had to be disposed of at great expense… all because older batches were being ‘buried’ by newer ones, and wouldn’t be uncovered until it was too late. Better tracking can eliminate costly problems of this kind.

9. Think Long-Term

What you are able to do today might be constrained by your circumstances, but there is no reason to assume that you must always be in the same situation. If you are in rented premises, you won’t be able to make significant changes to the warehouse; covering it in solar panels, collecting rainwater or putting up a wind turbine isn’t going to be an option… but perhaps a purpose-built facility might include such features, some years down the line.

While you’re thinking long-term, consider the things you might do better but that won’t pay back right away, such as investing in reusable containers and racks that eliminate packaging for deliveries to regular customers.

Perhaps the most important aspect of your long-term plan for a sustainable warehouse is to be in the right place. Remember that the greenest warehouse in the world isn’t going to be part of a sustainable supply chain if every journey to and from your partners both upstream and downstream is twenty miles longer than it needs to be. Transportation isn’t the subject of today’s article, but it’s a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, so it makes sense to minimise distances travelled.

10. Farewell to the Big Tin Shed?

It’s tempting to assume that a warehouse is a warehouse, and that any modern construction will be a prefabricated steel structure in more-or-less the same pattern, but this doesn’t have to be the case. For a glimpse of the alternative, have a look at the Adnams Brewery warehouse in Southwold, UK. I’ve written before about how certain emerging building materials can have a negative carbon footprint, and the lime hemp blocks in the Adnams building achieve this, but the architects have gone further, doing away with the need for artificial refrigeration.

The future has arrived, and it’s a funny-looking building with a shaggy green roof.

Adnams Brewery warehouse

Adnams Brewery warehouse, Southwold (


One thought on “The Sustainable Supply Chain: One Warehouse at a Time

  1. Pingback: Greener Warehouses… greener still | Capacify

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