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There is no Such Thing as “Sustainable Logistics”

I would like to say a few words on the subject of “sustainable logistics”.

The combination of “sustainability” and “logistics” is quite widespread. Google delivers almost 62,000 hits for the German combination “Nachhaltige Logistik” and around 521,000 for the English equivalent “Sustainable Logistics”. This does not include synonyms such as “green logistics” etc. for both languages.

There are chairs at universities that are dedicated to sustainable logistics and there are also numerous courses on the subject. I myself offer a course called “Sustainability and sustainable logistics”.

And yet I would like to make a point: Sustainable logistics is window dressing. It is a smoke grenade that is used to milk the important topic of sustainability, which is a megatrend on the one hand, but also a popular buzzword on the other. I think there are few topics in general on which so much useless stuff is written and said as on sustainability – maybe AI, but that’s probably it.

But back to my assertion: sustainable logistics is window dressing. I would like to explain my reasoning.

With improvement initiatives and system optimizations of any kind, we must always ask ourselves two questions:

  1. 1) What has the biggest impact on the outcome we are interested in?
  2. 2) What is cause and what is effect?

Let’s first talk about the second question: What is cause and what is effect?

Cause and Effect

Many phenomena that we observe and regard as problems are only the symptoms of underlying problems. In addition, there is often a considerable time lag between cause and effect, which makes it difficult to identify the cause of an observed effect. There is probably nothing that complicates our learning as much as the time lag between cause and effect.

In addition, there is not just “the” cause for an effect, but on the one hand we can find underlying causes for most causes – so there is a hierarchy of causes – and on the other hand there is often more than one cause for an effect even at the same level, so there are multi-causal cause-effect relationships.

And here’s the thing: logistics is at the very end of a long and often branched causal chain; perhaps we should speak of a causal network instead. The work we do in logistics with transportation and storage is a symptom, an effect of a multitude of underlying causes and decisions that were made elsewhere and long before outside of logistics. Logistics therefore reacts much more than it acts. It is the dependent variable, not the independent one. Accordingly, “sustainable logistics” can be described as tinkering with symptoms.

What has the Greatest Influence on the Result?

The other important question in system optimization is which variable has the greatest influence on the result. What is the bottleneck? What is worth improving and what only has a marginal influence?

And here too, the levers we have in logistics are quite short. It makes a much bigger difference whether I have to transport and store something or not than HOW exactly I transport and store it. We should use our mental capacity above all to find out how we can avoid transportation and storage instead of making it more efficient. Also known as: If we make a shitty process efficient, we have an efficient shitty process. For example, if you look at the number of returns that exist in online retail and what often happens to the returns after they are sent back, you realize that it may not matter whether you transport the stuff by diesel truck or cargo bike.

And What is Sustainable Anyway?

Another question that is far more difficult to answer concerns sustainability itself: What is actually sustainable and what is sustainable logistics? One of the difficulties with this question is that there are a lot of conflicting goals in sustainability. On the one hand, there are often conflicts between ecological, social and economic goals. On the other hand, there are also conflicts of objectives within each of these three categories. Measures that are conducive to climate protection can have more negative effects than other ecological aspects. Plastic, for example, is a very light material; a thin plastic bag weighs almost nothing. It is cheap to produce and its CO2 emissions of production are low. But it often ends up in nature, very often in the sea, where it kills wild animals. A cardboard box or paper bag requires more energy and more water to produce and they are heavier, so require more energy to transport. But they do not end up in the stomachs of marine animals. This is just one example, representative of the large number of conflicting goals within the ecological category of sustainability.

The Wrong Expertise for the Wrong Topic

When I then look at which people with which qualifications talk about sustainability in general and sustainable logistics in particular, the mildest of the still appropriate reactions is to smile. Hordes of people (especially academics, of course) feel called upon to talk about the (very complicated and multidimensional) topic of sustainability, who lack the minimum basics in understanding sustainability. And with sustainable logistics, the inadequate understanding of sustainability is then imposed on some logistical function (usually transportation, because that’s the most obvious pick). The result is predictably superficial and trivial and often revolves around cargo bikes, e-trucks and similar nonsense that completely misses the core of the problems, does not solve any problems and is logistically and economically useless and ecologically neutral at best.

Milking Political Correctness for a Living

The prominent positioning of climate change in the media, its political prioritization, its quasi-religious aura and its use as a practical decision-making tool to classify individuals and organizations into political camps and/or rival tribes naturally creates considerable incentives for many individuals to take up the issue. As is so often the case, this largely affects professional academics who, in order to obtain funding, must always chase after every trend that is perceived as an important field of research by their respective state government. Even apart from the need to tap into pots of money, you naturally want to emphasize that you are one of the “good guys” TM. Hardly any topic is better suited for this. And of course you want to have something important to say that you can present to your students or colleagues with a serious face (but without concrete, meaningful solutions) – and of course, all the more, the fewer important things you actually have to say. And so the topic often ends up with those who know the least about it.

Students (with the best of intentions and genuine interest) then write their thesis on “something with sustainability” — and the topics almost always revolve around a single aspect, namely CO2 savings. Not that the topic is unimportant, but optimizing a single aspect of a multi-dimensional problem area with countless conflicting goals (= sustainability) is not a good idea in principle. They are supervised by people who are clearly not experts in any aspect of sustainability, but instead in mechanical engineering, tribology, logistics, economics,… and are not even aware of the complexity of the topic. And while there is normally a requirement that you should be an expert in the topics you are supervising, this restriction does not seem to apply to any topic related to sustainability.

The one-dimensional focus does not only drive academics. Suddenly, many otherwise inconspicuous and reputable production companies come up with the idea of calculating CO2 emissions over the life cycle of a crank shaft or a frying pan (and are happy to delegate these tasks to students for their thesis work). Some of these ideas are politically induced (German Supply Chain Care Act, EU Supply Chain Act…), others are marketing initiatives. In almost all cases, of course, nobody is seriously interested in the result, which is why people are satisfied with the pseudo-accuracy of any calculations with LCA tools under the wildest assumptions.

Which is not to say…

… that there is nothing to improve in logistics. In the unambiguous cases without conflicting objectives, however, improvements in ecological aspects are almost always closely linked to economic savings. This is the case, for example, where we avoid waste. We avoid waste when we don’t burn fuel unnecessarily, when products don’t break unnecessarily during transportation, when we don’t use unnecessary amounts of material or energy in production, and so on. However, these things could also be addressed and improved without any ecological interest for purely economic reasons. Pretending that this is being done for environmental reasons is hypocrisy. A non-logistical example that everyone is familiar with are the notices that can now be found in almost all hotel rooms, stating that you should use your towels more than once “to protect the environment”. If it didn’t save costs at the same time, we would find this reference far less often. That is hypocrisy. And widespread.

But apart from the moral evaluation of these types of measures, it can also be said that they are almost all trivial. There is no need for a research project to establish that avoiding German domestic airmail saves CO2 (and, more importantly, a lot of money), as the German postal service has just concluded.

If we are serious about it…

I have already said that sustainability is not a topic for clueless talkers. But who is it for? And how can we seriously improve the “sustainability” of logistics – or more generally and more sensibly: our lifestyle? There are many levers:

  • People react to incentives. Incentives in business life are primarily determined by the underlying business model. If the economic success of the company is based solely on selling as much stuff as possible with as high a margin as possible, the incentive structure created by economic logic is not compatible with lip service on LinkedIn and the beehive in the yard. The whole issue of circular economy is also included in the question of the business model.
  • Chemical engineering, physics, and material science play a major role. If we can use new materials that have the desired properties of existing materials without their environmentally harmful or socially unacceptable disadvantages, we gain a lot. If we produce the millions of square meters of stretch film used every day to wrap pallets from a material that is fully biologically degradable within months, we will save thousands of tons of plastic waste. The film I use to wrap a pallet of spare parts has to last a long time. The film I use to secure a pallet of fruit and vegetables has to last a maximum of one day, after which the film is removed anyway. Why we treat pallets that may be in stock for years in the same way as pallets that are packed and unpacked within 24 hours is beyond me. But I have not yet heard a key note about the potential of stretch film…
  • Ingenious product design must facilitate the maintenance and repair of products. Take cars, for example. The politically induced mindless pursuit of CO2 savings with constant or increasing output necessarily comes at the expense of durability. In addition, ease of repair no longer seems to be an objective in the specifications. That is not a good combination. But it also has to do with the business model of most automobile companies and with government-induced incentives: If I am effectively penalized for driving an older vehicle as a company car because I am always taxed on the basis of the gross new car price for private use, and if the company is also taxed on the income from the sale of a depreciated vehicle, it – of course – boils down to the following (a) Companies lease, not buy, vehicles, (b) the holding period of the vehicles is short, so that repairs do not play a role for the first owners, and (c) vehicle manufacturers adapt their product development precisely to this use case and build vehicles that are practically no longer economically maintainable after a few years. (See business model.)
  • Ein anderer Aspekt der Produktentwicklung betrifft die Frage, in welchem Maße ich (z.B. bei langsam drehenden Teilen, wie u.a. vielen Ersatzteilen) die Produktion, den Transport und die Lagerung gewisser Teile durch bedarfsgerechte additive Fertigung (= 3D-Druck) ersetzen kann. Das geht nicht mit einem Stoßdämpfer, aber es geht mit dem Gehäuse des Fahrzeugaußenspiegels. In welchem Maße lassen sich Lager durch Print Shops ersetzen? Es gibt nichts, was mehr zu einer nachhaltigen Logistik beiträgt, als die Vermeidung von Logistik. Aber: siehe Geschäftsmodell.
  • Why are 50 – 70% of the clothing items ordered returned? The statistics on returns are clear and tell us that, among other things, many products are of poor quality and that many pieces of clothing will not fit. Do we really have no way of matching a 3D scan of our body with a 3D scan of an item of clothing? (Yes, we do, but no one does it yet). Logistics thrives on this madness. The madness doesn’t get any less just because we transport Zalando parcels through the city on cargo bikes instead of trucks. And there are not so many people in most Western and Far Eastern countries who are able to work and at the same time unemployed that we could afford to transport tiny amounts around by bike.
  • There is no need to mention here that a functioning rail infrastructure would help to avoid emissions and other disadvantages of motorized road transport. Infrastructure projects are expensive and complicated (so experts are needed again. I see a pattern…), and there is far less of an aura of moral superiority to be enjoyed than by simply imposing new burdens on the population and thus delegating the problem and, in religious tradition, selling additional burdens with reference to higher powers as having no alternative for access to paradise or a world without global warming. Speaking of infrastructure: charging infrastructure for electric vehicles? (We do not have any that deserves the name in Germany). Base-load capable low-emission power plants? (We just shut them down for no good reason).

The list is of course not exhaustive. It is rather short. It is also not the core of this article, but only a brief digression. Experts are needed for each of the points mentioned. Not clueless talkers who produce endless substance-free normative statements of the most trivial kind in key notes or on LinkedIn.

Apart from avoiding waste, there are no solutions, there are only trade-offs. If you accept this premise, you can have serious discussions about sustainability and sustainable logistics. Otherwise the whole thing inevitably degenerates into drivel.

Every now and then I subscribe to a sustainability newsletter (e.g. recently the one from the Deutsche Verkehrs-Zeitung, which I unsubscribed from after eight weeks) or dare to attend a conference presentation, but the substance is then so thin that I have to write it off as a waste of time and then give it up again for a while. This is a shame, but not unexpected and therefore predictable: If we limit ourselves to logistics, there is not even a place to start to seriously address the issue of sustainability, because in most cases logistics is merely the executing force to implement decisions made elsewhere (see section “Cause and Effect“). It’s like holding debates in the military on how to deal with the enemy without resorting to violence. The decision for war is made elsewhere. And the real possibilities of exerting influence to avoid violence are very limited within the armed forces (see section “What has the greatest influence on the result?”).

So: what to do?

What does this mean for us logistics experts?

For me personally, this means that I have kindly declined all business requests for advice on sustainable logistics to date. It costs me money, but I don’t feel like doing sustainability theater – and that’s what it usually is – because I don’t expect it to have any significant effect. I prefer to deal with real logistical issues, where the effect is much greater (and incidentally also on sustainability if waste is avoided). But I am also not listed on the stock exchange and do not have to pay attention to ESG ratings that are irrelevant in terms of content but cannot be ignored by many corporations. I also do not have to proclaim my moral superiority online in order to publicly assign myself to the political camp of “the good guys”. I leave that to people with more time and less self-esteem. That’s why I can make this decision.

Not everyone can do that. If you can’t do this (as a logistics specialist), I would strongly recommend that you look up and start with the classic approach of identifying and avoiding waste. Just walk through the warehouse and observe. Simply do a chalk circle session. Simply analyze your data and determine your warehouse’s labor and overall productivity. It would serve us all and the world very well if everyone did their jobs properly. It’s harder than talking about sustainability and painting your company logo green, and you might sometimes get less attention ─ not to say that working properly without making a lot of noise about it is even somewhat unfashionable and against the spirit of the times. However, there is no alternative in the long term and it is therefore highly sustainable.