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When journalists come to write retrospective analyses of COVID19, they will hopefully talk about the many lessons which were learned from it.  One of those lessons has surely been the dangers of excessive centralization.  It seems very likely that companies will be reviewing their supply chains.  This provides a great opportunity to make them more sustainable.

Bringing manufacturing closer to consumers

For years, if not decades now, China has been the world’s manufacturing hub.  It’s therefore been the de facto centre of the world’s global supply chain.  As a result, when COVID19 struck and China was shut down, the whole world felt the consequences.

Introducing more distributed manufacturing should help to reduce the likelihood of this widespread disruption being repeated.  It could also have the significant add-on benefit of bringing manufacturing closer to consumers.  This would, of course, reduce the need for goods to be transported and hence improve sustainability.

Implementing smarter warehouse management

At present, warehouses vary hugely in their technical capabilities.  Depending on where you are in the world, they can be anything from basic storehouses to high-tech, fully-connected, data-driven operations.

Modernizing outdated warehouses could have massive benefits for the overall sustainability of the global supply chain.  The reason for this is that warehouses are the start- and end-points for all goods transport journeys.  This means that the decisions they make will almost inevitably have repercussions further along the line.

Implementing smarter freight

Warehousing and freight really work in tandem.  The better warehouses can manage their resources, the more accurately they can judge their freight needs.  This makes for much greater efficiency.

Efficiency can be further improved by using technology to enable mutually-beneficial cooperation between companies.  What this means in practice will depend on the type of freight used.  For shipping, it could mean creating opportunities for companies to share containers.  For road freight, it may mean ensuring that goods vehicles are never empty.

Reducing the use of fossil fuels

It’s likely to be some time yet before electric HGVs become a reality.  In the meantime, however, we can look to use petrol-/diesel-powered vehicles more effectively.  Part of improving efficiency relates to better, “smarter” planning.  Part of it, however, relates to helping drivers implement fuel-efficient driving.

The nature of HGVs means that their drivers have to drive in a more fuel-efficient way than regular car drivers.  HGVs simply cannot make quick changes in speed and direction in the same way as cars.  This means that their drivers have to think ahead and prepare moves well in advance.

As a result, any gains are likely to be made by using technology to augment human expertise.  In particular, computer systems could scan data feeds for relevant, real-time data to help the driver make the best decisions.  They might even be able to make recommendations, although the driver would decide whether or not to accept them.

Reviewing packaging and packaging materials

Companies already have two good incentives to minimize their packaging.  Firstly it’s what consumers want.  Secondly, reducing packaging reduces the cost of packaging (and transportation).  Of course, there is a limit to how much companies can reduce packaging and keep their products safe.  That limit is, however, continually being pushed back.

The next major challenge is to reassess the use of plastic.  Specifically, it is to see how we can keep the benefits of plastic, such as its hygiene while addressing the related sustainability issues.  The obvious answer to this issue is to ensure that all plastics are either totally recyclable or totally biodegradable.

Although this is an obvious answer, it’s not necessarily going to be easy to make it happen in the real world.  The good news is that progress is definitely being made.  For example, some companies are now developing plant-based bioplastics which dissolve after use.

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