By Clifford F. Lynch
Itís not easy being green, as Kermit the Frog noted in his 1972 song. Nor
is it easy being environmentally sustainable. Just ask any of the 60,000-plus
companies that supply goods to Wal-Mart.
Over the past two years, the mega-retailer has been rolling out an ambitious
environmental sustainability program, and itís taking it suppliers along for
the ride. Among other goals, the retailer says it intends "to be supplied
100 percent by renewable energy; to create zero waste; and to sell products that
sustain our resources and our environment." Itís already selling organic
food and clothes made from organic cotton. Itís working to cut its truck fleetís
greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 percent. And now itís pushing its suppliers to
reduce total packaging by 5 percent by 2013.
Supply chain executives should take particular note of this last initiative.
As with previous Wal-Mart programs, this one will have an impact on a large
number of companies Ė at least 60,000 worldwide. And impacted they will be.
Wal-Mart has made it clear that it expects its suppliers to cut back on
packaging and make more use of renewable materials, and it will be monitoring
their compliance. The retailer has developed a packaging scorecard that enables
suppliers to measure their progress against a set of metrics. They have one year
to get ready. After that, Wal-Mart intends to start keeping score for real.
Itís hard to argue with Wal-Martís eco-friendly packaging intentions, but
veteran supply chain managers may well have some qualms about the program Ė
and with good reason. Over the past two decades, theyíve seen a number of
initiatives aimed at promoting greener packaging practices, and not all of those
programs have been a success.
Take the introduction of recycled corrugated in to the supply chain, for
instance. Recycled corrugated hit the grocery industryís supply chain at about
the same time my company opened a new distribution center in Jacksonville, Fla.
After dropping, tearing and otherwise subjecting the recycled corrugated cartons
to their tests, the packaging engineers assured us that the containers had
passed with flying colors. But they apparently neglected to stack the product
three high in a high-humidity warehouse. Goodbye, bulk storage. Hello, expensive
Things didnít go much better when the grocery industry tried to cut down on
its use of corrugated boxes some years later. In place of boxes, participants in
the program packed products in cardboard trays, which were shrink-wrapped before
being fed into conveying and sorting systems. Coincidentally, at about that
time, one of the leading vendors of automated warehousing equipment had
developed and installed (at considerable expense to the purchasers) a system
that used traditional belts and conveyors, but also relied on vinyl slides to
move cases from one level to another. It quickly became apparent that the
fastest way to shut down an automated warehousing system was to try to
"slide" a shrink-wrapped case down a vinyl panel.
These problems were solved, of course, just as other ones can be. But these
experiences underscore why logistics and DC managers need to stay involved in
the package design process. Although a number of disciplines within the company
will have input into packaging changes, the distribution function has the
biggest stake in the outcome. Invariably, the distribution process is where
problems such as inadequate stacking capability, pallet overhang and underhand,
and susceptibility to damage first become apparent.
Thatís not to suggest that whatís good for the planet canít be good for
the supply chain operation as well. It can. And as a responsible supply chain
executive, you certainly donít want to lose sight of the overall green
objective. You do, however, want to make sure itís accomplished in a