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Five Unanswered Questions About Supply Chain Sustainability

Creating sustainable supply chains for shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Five Unanswered Questions About Supply Chain Sustainability

Most modern businesses are fully behind the idea of sustainability. Whether it’s because of climate change, plastic pollution, air pollution, decreasing wildlife diversity, or even ocean-noise pollution, it’s hard to ignore the damage that we’re doing to the planet.

As such, the idea of supply chain sustainability has caught on a lot in recent years. It’s because of this idea that great strides have been made in terms of reducing carbon emissions, waste, and other pollutants. However, alongside these victories, there are many businesses keen to use the phrase “supply chain sustainability”, without exactly highlighting what they’re doing or what supply chain sustainability actually means.

Many Unanswered Questions

How should supply chains deal with wastewater pollution?
It’s not a glamorous topic, but wastewater pollution is a serious issue. As part of their production line, many food and drinks businesses wind up with a lot of water which can’t be reintroduced to the ecosystem, but it can’t simply be flushed away either.
Thanks to developments in technology, businesses have found ways to deal with this sort of pollution. However, far too often, businesses wind up polluting rivers with dirty wastewater anyway. The harsh truth is that — if they can get away with it — it’s cheaper and easier to pollute.

Then, there’s the even more intimate topic of poop pollution. When you flush your toilet, you use up a lot of water to do so. When an entire factory’s worth of staff flushes the toilet hundreds of times a day, it adds up.

Wastewater treatment facilities are meant to deal with this sort of wastewater, but a surprising number are unable to. On the one hand, it’s not the job of businesses to deal with this sort of wastewater pollution; it’s the job of wastewater treatment facilities. On the other hand, a polluted water system affects all of us, and anything we can do to reduce the amount of wastewater we produce is a good thing.

Are Supply Chains Inherently Unsustainable?

This is a tough question, but it’s a necessary one. While it’s unfair to say that all supply chains are inherently unsustainable, some certainly are. The raw resources of your product are the first issue. While replanting trees cut down by a business is a popular idea, the data shows that—in England at least—this is not happening.

It’s in the best interests of a business to keep its raw materials available for the future of their business. Yet, the palm oil crisis is just one example of how a raw material many businesses use needs a hard rethink. If it is possible to make palm oil a sustainable ingredient in your product, how? If it’s not, what alternatives are there?

This sort of thinking needs to be done throughout the entire supply chain. Can a warehouse be made more sustainable? Are some production techniques inherently unsustainable? Then, of course, there is the question of emissions.

Is a Zero-Emissions Supply Chain Possible?

Reduction of carbon emissions is one thing, but it’s not a permanent solution to the issue of climate change or air pollution. A permanent solution needs to come in the form of a zero-emissions supply chain run entirely by renewable energy. If it sounds impossible, it’s only because it’s never been done before.

Immense progress has been made. The ever-ambitious Elon Musk beat his own 100-day deadline to install the world’s largest solar-powered battery in order to power an entire Australian town on 100 percent renewable energy. If it can work for an entire town, it could easily work for a business or factory. What’s more, once installed, those business would never have to worry about energy bills or reducing emissions again.

In terms of transport, Tesla is also making strides with its electric powered cars, and is even working on electric-powered transport vehicles for supply chains. With enough investment from businesses, entire supply chains could be powered by electricity from renewable energy sources. A zero-emissions supply chain is possible if we want it.

Justin O’Sullivan, the owner of Storage Equipment Experts, delivers safety inspections for warehouses across the UK and Ireland. He is passionate about supply chain safety as well as supply chain sustainability.

Warehouses can be made safe whether or not being used for shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

How Should the Supply Chain React to the Oakland Tragedy?

Eye-witnesses said that it was “like a fireball that was moving” and two men were charged with manslaughter. The Oakland warehouse fire was a catastrophe that seemed unprecedented. However, sadly, it was not.

After six months of speculation and investigation, the courts have decided that the warehouse fire — while accidentalcould have been prevented. Gross negligence from the two owners led to a devastating fire that trapped its victims.

What was predicted at the time has turned out to be more or less accurate: that most of the fire exits were either blocked or inefficient. The items being stored in the warehouse and the way in which they were stored were a fire hazard. The owner did not take health and safety or the upkeep of the building seriously.

The Lessons for Warehouse Owners‭
‬While it seems like a pretty cut-and-dry case,‭ ‬the matter of what to do next is quite complicated.‭ ‬The Ghost Ship,‭ ‬the name given to the warehouse in Oakland,‭ ‬was an art space and living space for the working poor and bohemians alike that was being illegally occupied.‭ ‬In response to the tragedy,‭ ‬a crackdown on similar warehouses has been praised by some.‭ ‬Others,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬are less pleased.‭

Yes, it is true that, had that warehouse not been occupied, the fire wouldn’t have started and 36 people wouldn’t have died. Yet kicking people out of warehouses like that will only force them to find accommodations elsewhere in even less safe warehouses. Many of the victims of the fire either lived at the Ghost Ship or lived in similar accommodation due to the high rents in the Bay Area.

Warehouse safety isn’t a matter of bulldozing your way through the problem with simple, one-off solutions. Shutting down warehouses like this across the US would be the wrong response. Instead, local governments need to be allowed to make these sorts of accommodations safe with regular inspections.

“Regular” is the keyword here. When the warehouse was first occupied or built, it may have been safe. However, safety isn’t a one-time thing; it’s a continued commitment. When a warehouse is allowed to go uninspected for a long enough period — either through the fault of the owner or because of lack of government oversight — something will eventually have to give.

There is a reason that Canada, the US, Australia, the UK, Ireland, and the EU all recommend regular warehouse safety and racking inspections either from staff, from an expert of some sort, or from a government official.

As well as this, warehouse owners and the supply chain in general need to recognize that what happened in Oakland could happen to any business. It’s easy to look at a tragedy like that and imagine your warehouse or supply chain is safer. While it probably (or hopefully) is, it’s worth remembering that even giants such as Anheuser-Busch wind up making costly mistakes. Their New Jersey warehouse was deemed so dangerous by OSHA that they had to pay out over $150,000.

Progress Is Possible‭
‬What is worse than a complacent response to this tragedy is an apathetic one.‭ ‬Throwing up your hands and believing that the problem can’t be solved because it’s too complex means that it won’t be solved.‭ ‬Danger is not so entrenched in any culture that it can’t be dealt with.‭ ‬With a lot of hard work,‭ ‬these warehouses can be made safer without just closing them all down.‭

A warehouse tragedy in the UK which killed fewer people was enough to instigate lasting change. HSE, the British government board for health and safety, was formed as a direct result of the Flixborough warehouse explosion which cost 28 people their lives. Since 1974, when HSE formed, workplace injuries in the UK have reduced by 77% and workplace fatalities have reduced by 85%. That success can be replicated.

If the federal government, local governments, and warehouse owners can all agree on some kind of change, then we might see some progress in the future. While that’s easier said than done, the alternative is the risk of another tragedy like the one in Oakland.

Justin O’Sullivan is a safety expert who specialises in warehouse safety. His business, Storage Equipment Experts, specialises in racking inspection services for other British and Irish businesses.

Drones may be used to deliver shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Could 2017 Be The Year of Automation in the Supply Chain?

Way back in 2012, Tacocopter—a Silicon Valley startup—came up with a simple but powerful idea: automated taco delivery. Rather than delivery being made by a person to an address, Tacocopter promised to deliver fast-food by unmanned drone, via an app, to a GPS location on your phone.
So what happened? Why is it that, four years later, we’re still ordering tacos like it’s 1995?

While Tacocopter sounds like a great idea, the legal and logistical problems that held it back in 2012 still exist. As a result, the service has been stuck in its beta phase” for four whole years.

The biggest issue facing Tacocopter is to do with FAA safety regulations, which prevent unmanned drones being used for legal purposes. This one FAA regulation underlines the problem facing automation in general: it isn’t safe enough.

Automation in the supply chain and the Internet of Thing are quite old ideas, with vlogger CGP Grey talking about automation in detail way back in 2014 and the Internet of Things being coined in 1999. The latter describes a world where everything is connected (streetlamps, vacuum cleaners, cars, and phones) in the same way that computers are connected to each other now. Put these two ideas together and you have a supply chain where the bulk of the work is done by unmanned drones, self-driving cars, and other automated machines. All of them would talk to others, just like a computer talks to other computers on the internet, and all of them would be operated by a single app.

While all of this sounds revolutionary, none of this has actually happened yet. It’s been two years since CGP Grey’s video and 17 years since Kevin Ashton first described the Internet of Things. So why will 2017 be any different?

Times are changing, and the movement towards automation in the supply chain is becoming stronger. After all, while the idea of some brand new Silicon Valley startup promising to revolutionize the way we get fast food delivered seems laughable, it’s a lot less laughable when one of the biggest tech companies in the world promises the exact same thing.

And that is exactly what’s happening. Alphabet, Google’s parent company and therefore one of the biggest tech businesses in the world, is promising a future where Chipotle Burritos will be ordered via app and delivered via unmanned drone to a GPS location. When one of the biggest businesses in the world gets behind something, it’s time to start taking it seriously.

And it’s not just one enormous tech company getting behind the idea. Amazon is describing their unmanned drones as “a future delivery systemwhich will be able to bring products to their customers in 30 minutes or less — at least according to their estimates.
Then you have self-driving cars and the increasingly ambitious predictions for when these will be road legal.
Ford claims 2021, Google claims 2020, Baidu claims 2019, and Elon Musk claims 2017.

Even if Musk’s claims are wildly optimistic, 2017 could still be the year that automation in the supply chain begins to take off. A radar tracking system on unmanned drones is a modification being developed by Echodyne which aims to assuage those who worry about the safety of delivery by unmanned drone.

All of this will likely affect the transport side of the supply chain, but many other elements of the supply chain could be affected by automation as well. Back in 2015, the notion of pallet racking inspections in warehouses by unmanned drone was an idea proposed at the SEMA safety conference. As with delivery by unmanned drones, the idea has yet to come to fruition. However, as with delivery by unmanned drones, advances in technology such as a radar tracking systems could make all of this a reality.

2017 might be the year of automation in the supply chain, but it might also be 2018, 2019, or 2020. The fact is that these changes will likely happen in increments. What we do know is that the trend towards automation in the supply chain is strong and is being backed by a wide range of industries. It’s going to happen; it’s all just a question of when.

Justin O’Sullivan is a racking inspection expert and the owner of Storage Equipment Experts. His business offers a number of racking inspections services including a free warehouse racking inspection template.