By Clifford F. Lynch
I think it’s safe to say that most of us agree that "green" is good, whether
we feel that way because Al Gore told us we should or because we’re sincerely
concerned about the environment. But sometimes I wonder if we might not be going
too far. Take, for example, the advice I recently read from an "expert" on ways
to conduct a green wedding. The expert suggested inviting only local guests to
the ceremony and letting the rest attend via webcam. The reason? Discouraging
out-of-town guests from flying or driving to the wedding would cut down on
travel-related greenhouse gas emissions!
I last wrote about the green supply chain in 2007 (DC Velocity, March
2007, "it’s not easy being green"). I concluded at the time that Kermit the Frog
was right, and nothing I’ve seen or read since has changed my mind. However
well-intentioned, green initiatives can cause all kinds of supply chain
complications. (Worse yet are the faux green initiatives – cost-cutting moves,
some of them ill-advised, that are pushed through in the name of
sustainability.) And nine times out of 10, the problems could have been avoided
if someone had thought to bring the supply chain managers in on the early
Not long ago, while examining a water bottle’s label during a boring plane
ride, I noticed a statement announcing that the bottle and the cap contained 40
percent less plastic than previous versions. The message was clear enough: "See
what a good company we are!" The potential for savings is easy to see – less
plastic to buy, lower freight charges due to a reduction in the finished
product’s weight, and less plastic to dispose of. Is it a green innovation?
Probably so. But what if the end result is an inferior bottle that’s harder to
handle and more damage prone? Is it still a good idea then?
There are other examples, as well. But when it comes to stories illustrating
the consequences of ill-conceived green packaging initiatives, two in particular
stand out in my mind. I mentioned them both in my 2007 column, but they bear
repeating today, especially since the green movement continues to gain traction:
Several years ago, at about the same time my company opened a new distribution
center in the Southeast, recycled corrugated hit the grocery industry’s supply
chain. 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,
happy rack salesman.
Things didn’t go much better when the grocery industry tried to cut down on
its use of corrugated boxes a few 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.
All of these examples underscore the need to include supply chain managers in
any discussions about new green initiatives, particularly if they involve
package design. They are really the largest stakeholders in green packaging
But none of that changes the fact that while many companies are making
sincere efforts to go green, others are trying to pass off cost-cutting moves –
moves that are unfriendly to the supply chain – as green initiatives and waving
the flag of environmental responsibility. Not a bad deal if it works.
Al Gore would be proud.