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 discussions.
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 innovations.
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.