Imagine a world where your supply chain creates no waste. Everything gets used in perfect portions. Factories run on 100% renewable energy. There are no carbon emissions to offset. Orders are delivered via an all-electric fleet. Sounds like a dream, right?
We’ve got a long way to go before we’re living in a zero-waste supply chain world, but we can take steps today to reduce inefficiencies in our supply chains to make them more resilient and sustainable. Sure, a sustainable supply chain can put a dent in the almost 150 million tons of waste sent to landfills every year and avoid greenhouse gas emissions from excess production—but it can also reduce material and operating costs for your business. Through optimization initiatives, you’ll also reduce risks associated with major supply chain disruptions—for example, from price volatility to fuel—saving your business money.
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Here are some mini-case studies that include steps and initiatives to make supply chain management more sustainable and six companies to look to for inspiration.
Rethink your products and packaging, like Lush and Neighbourhood Botanicals
Examine every part—end-to-end—of the products you produce. Is there a way to reduce waste or repurpose materials? Is a buyback program an option for your brand? You may also need to involve suppliers. Do they offer bulk options to reduce individual packaging and reduce trips?
The ethical beauty brand Lush has shifted as many products as possible from liquid to solid to eliminate packaging. What it can’t make solid, it packages in a container referred to as a “black pot,” a program where customers can drop off five pots at a local store for a free facemask. Lush recycles them into new pots for liquid products, creating a closed recycling loop.
When skincare brand Neighbourhood Botanicals couldn’t find sustainable packaging for its products, it made its own sustainable packaging company, On Repeat. On Repeat doesn’t only make packaging for Neighbourhood Botanicals—it will gladly work with any beauty brand. Its goal? Reduce the entire cosmetic industry’s landfill waste.
Create a closed loop return or circular supply chain model like Suga
Waste is a valuable asset when it comes to closed-loop returns or a circular economy supply chain model. Find opportunities to reuse the waste from manufacturing processes or make a new item out of returns or other upcycled materials.
For example, Suga found an opportunity to repurpose old wet suites and created a closed-loop recycling system. The brand creates yoga mats from unwanted donated wetsuits and gives a 10% off coupon for those that send in their wetsuits.
Suga also created a cradle-to-cradle recycling service for used Suga mats. If your dog chews up your mat, send it in for another coupon towards a new one. Suga recycles your old mat, and it becomes a new mat once again.
The closed-loop return model is becoming more popular amongst bigger brands, too. Lululemon and Nike have launched buyback programs in the last year. It’s a lucrative way for brands to reduce spend on inventory material while improving their brand reputation.
Rather than raw materials, use recycled like Green Toys does
Waste is expensive—it costs the U.S. $218 billion dollars to grow, process, transport, and dispose of food waste. And that’s just the food industry. The toy industry creates 40 tons of plastic for every $1 million of revenue. But, innovative companies have found ways to give landfill-bound waste a new life.
Green Toys uses milk jugs and yogurt cups to create kids’ toys from 100% post-consumer recycled high-density polypropylene (PP) or recycled low-density polyethylene (LDPE). Green Toys products are durable and last for years, helping keep single-use plastic waste out of landfills and oceans.
Improve your inventory management like Recover Brands
Inventory management can make or break your sustainable supply chain and business, especially if overproduction is an issue for your company. Determine which of your products need storage and which products are better for just-in-time logistics. Your most popular products should go into your warehouse for quick shipping and convenience. For products that don’t sell as quickly, create them on demand when they’re ordered, rather than keeping excess inventory. Storing fewer products in a warehouse means less space to rent, air condition, light, and maintain—all saving you money.
Sustainable apparel brand Recover Brands has found many ways to improve its inventory management. You can ride its whole U.S. supply chain by bike in one day. Having all its facilities close reduces the carbon footprint for supply chain transportation. As the name suggests, Recover Brands is known for recovering and reusing cotton from its factory floors and recycled plastic from barrels and soda bottles to make new polyester. With any return, it provides a 20% off coupon and an address where to send your gear. Then, Recover Brands makes that gear into something new, creating an infinite life for products and materials.
Get everyone on board like Cotopaxi
Getting everyone—manufacturers, partners, and factories—on board with a new sustainable code of conduct is essential if you shift to more sustainable standards. Holding your supply chain to your standards by including codes of conduct or other ESG requirements in contract terms and RFPs has a strong multiplier effect.
Cotopaxi is an adventure apparel brand known for its fun and vibrant colors. Its funky-colored blocks exist because they’re scrap materials from other projects. 94% of its products contain repurposed, recycled, or responsible materials, and the brand plans to hit 100% by 2025. Cotopaxi also upholds high standards for human rights across its supply chain. It uses audits and certifications to uphold these standards, promote fair labor practices, and create transparency by listing all its compliance documentation on its website.
Key takeaways and next steps to make your supply chain more sustainable
In 2021, 21% of U.K. retailers left suppliers without sustainable or ethical standards, accounting for $6.9 billion in contracts. That’s why it’s a competitive advantage to have an efficient, sustainable, and ethical supply chain—it can attract like-minded partners.
Use these key takeaways to get started on your journey to supply chain sustainability.
– Follow the footsteps of sustainable innovators in and outside your industry. Use their practices—when possible—to make your business more sustainable.
– Assess your products and packaging to find ways to reduce the waste you create.
– Create a closed loop or circular economy supply chain to avoid sending your products and packaging to the landfill.
– Look for product design opportunities to use recycled materials, which can help reduce your industry’s negative environmental impacts.
– Improve your inventory management to optimize logistics and minimize your warehousing carbon footprint.
– Talk to your people on the ground about cost savings, time, materials, and other resources.