It’s no secret that fulfillment centers are responsible for huge outputs of energy and waste. And as the ecommerce sector grows, this footprint is only set to get bigger.
According to Supply Chain Digital, buildings consume nearly 40% of all energy in the United States due to heating, cooling, and lighting. If we picture the average warehouse spanning tens of thousands of square feet, it’s easy to see how fulfillment can easily sabotage your efforts at being an environmentally responsible retailer.
By taking steps to green up your warehousing operation, you can create a much healthier and more effective fulfillment strategy that benefits the planet – and your bottom line.
Green warehousing is a series of sustainability strategies that businesses and 3PLs can implement to lower the carbon footprint of their warehouse operations. This includes lowering waste output and resource use such as energy and water consumption, packaging materials, and other finite supplies. Green warehousing also considers additional factors such as the spread of facilities and the materials used to construct and maintain them.
Of course, this isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Warehouses are dynamic places running at high capacity to meet fulfillment and shipping targets. Trying to coordinate the movement of goods around a facility, picking/packing strategies, waste management, and administration to achieve greener logistics can be an intimidating prospect. But these efforts are well worth it for the rewards.
Non-renewable energy sources and materials are cheaper upfront than their green counterparts. But they cost businesses far more in the long run due to their lack of efficiency and/or reuse capabilities. This is particularly relevant for warehouses that rely on high levels of climate control to keep stock in a sellable condition. By investing to upgrade your facilities, you can reduce your utility bills and reinvest this money into making other parts of your fulfillment operation more efficient.
If sustainability is good for your brand, wasteful logistics practices certainly aren’t. A survey in 2019 found that nearly half of consumers had stopped supporting brands who contradicted their values – with sustainability and climate change cited as key reasons.
By investing in making your warehouse operations more friendly to the environment, you’ll gain a significant competitive edge over less environmentally conscious businesses. For retailers, maintaining transparency over an eco-friendly fulfillment operation is a great selling point for conscious consumers. For 3PLs, a green warehouse network makes you well-positioned to attract businesses who consider CSR to be a high priority.
It’s always good for employee morale when your team knows that their actions are having a positive, rather than adverse impact, on the environment. And when staff feel good about their work, they’re far more likely to stick around. According to a Reuters study, almost two-thirds of respondents said that they were more likely to work for a company that had a strong sustainability focus.
By keeping your staff turnover low, you can benefit from loyal team members and leverage their experience to train new staff more effectively. This means happier staff and better productivity.
We’ve all heard the saying ‘work smarter, not harder’ and this certainly applies to green logistics. When sustainability becomes an active criterion in decision-making, businesses are more likely to choose strategies that are beneficial in the long term. For example, building a new warehouse might be simpler, but optimizing your existing facilities for greater storage capacity is a lower-impact decision that will pay off through the more efficient use of space.
The path to greener warehousing begins before you even have a warehouse network.
Why? Because where your facilities are located in relation to customers and transportation networks has a massive influence on the sustainability of your fulfillment operation.
If your warehouse is located close to a large metro area, you can achieve much more direct transit to your customers, rather than having to route parcels through several checkpoints. This means less fuel is consumed during the shipping and last-mile delivery process, which helps to lower your carbon footprint as a whole.
We’ve carefully chosen the location of facilities within our nationwide network to maximize proximity to major ports and highways for faster transportation and lower fuel emissions, which means greener logistics for our customers.
Lighting is one of the biggest utility expenses in a warehouse, and for good reason; good lighting is vital for worker safety and avoiding accidents due to poor visibility. However, many facilities are still using traditional halogen or incandescent bulbs, which use as much as five times the energy of the much more efficient LED lighting. Furthermore, the heat output of LED bulbs is around 20% lower, meaning that your AC is doing far less overtime to keep your warehouse cool – and further lowering your running costs.
Using rapidly-depleting fossil fuels is a huge addition to your carbon footprint, and adds to worrying global output of carbon which is contributing to climate change. By switching to renewable energy sources, you can achieve both strong cost savings and long-term sustainability at your facilities.
For example, utilizing the huge roof footprint of your warehouse by installing solar panels is a brilliant way to generate your own electricity and increase the resale value of your real estate. Excess energy can also be resold back to the grid, which helps you to offset the cost of installation.
We are currently experimenting with solar panels at our three New Jersey facilities, with future plans to take advantage of the more than 7 million square feet of warehouse roof in our network to achieve a zero-carbon operation.
Most of us have heard the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle mantra – and it should happen precisely in this order when it comes to packaging.
Why? Because the more you can reduce packaging use in the first instance, the less your business has to reuse or dispose of. This will lower your waste output and packaging costs considerably over time.
Packaging waste is a huge problem in retail, especially for ecommerce orders where individual parcels need to be protected in transit. This causes many businesses and 3PLs to over-package to avoid damaged products. As well as creating excess waste, this also saddles your customers with the responsibility of disposal – and they’re unlikely to thank you for it.
You can minimize waste by making an effort to streamline your packaging designs. Many businesses are now investing in AI to create ‘smart’ packaging systems that estimate accurately how much packaging is needed for a particular item. This has the added advantage of lowering DIM weight, which means cheaper carrier fees.
Warehouses have gotten pretty good over the years at investing in sturdier pallets and storage containers which see many cycles of reuse, both lowering replacement costs and creating a circular economy.
Retailers and 3PLs can apply the same logic to their packaging by investing in return-ready designs. These materials can be reused for new orders or storage when they arrive at your facility, streamlining your reverse logistics and reducing waste. If customers can use the same packaging to return unwanted items, this also removes a huge amount of friction from the customer experience.
One issue that has led to ballooning packaging waste is the use of unrecyclable packaging materials like soft plastic and polystyrene, whose reuse opportunities are very limited. Because these materials are very cheap to purchase in bulk, businesses have traditionally chosen them over more eco-friendly options, such as cardboard and paper-based packaging.
By minimizing the use of unrecyclable packaging materials and maximizing renewable alternatives, you can ensure that a higher percentage of your packaging is revitalized through your warehouse recycling program. It’s also a good idea to have clearly labeled recycling bins in multiple places around your facility to make this easy and convenient for staff.
When you’re thinking about resource consumption, you need to look beyond your warehouses to your offices. Activities in these areas contribute significantly to your carbon footprint, even if they’re a minor part of your overall operation.
For example, paper wastage resulting from packing slips, order confirmations, and shipping notices very quickly adds up when we consider the number of orders passing through a warehouse on any given day. Given the modern ease of digitizing important records, physical copies are generally unnecessary, as well as prone to being misplaced or thrown out by mistake.
Consider setting a rule amongst your staff to lower paper use by printing only essential records. Strategies such as printing double-sided and reusing single-sided paper will also go a long way towards reducing paper use.
Sustainability is an art just as much as it’s a science, and there’s certainly no right or wrong way to get started. Remember that having more warehouses around the country practice sustainability imperfectly, rather than having just a handful of zero-carbon facilities, will have a much bigger positive impact overall. It’s always a good idea to start with the small steps, such as increasing your recycling efforts or switching to LED lighting. These actions alone will make a huge difference to your carbon footprint. So, why not get started today?