How 3PLs Help Partners Achieve Sustainability Goals

Apr 29, 2024

Logistics is a complicated industry tasked with shipping material goods worldwide as efficiently as possible.

However, as rising calls for cleaner shipping solutions have recently grown strong enough to concern both the average consumer and various world governments, the meaning of “efficiency” has taken on new meaning beyond simply saving on costs; it also represents environmental efficiency, or the race to trim harmful fuel emissions down to near-zero.

So, how does the world’s interconnected web of modes, storage facilities, businesses and droves of invested consumers adapt to a more sustainable supply chain?

Let’s find out.

Key Obstacles: Juggling Complexity, Visibility, and Speed

As discussed in our recent look into eco-friendly shipping tech, consumers are heavily invested in minimizing the harm freight shipping and transport causes the environment. In 2022 alone, goods shipped over U.S. roadways produced roughly 413 million metric tons of CO2 (don’t worry though, bulk carriers moving raw materials internationally fared even worse).

Unfortunately, you tend to hit a number of roadblocks when approaching the task of altering the very foundations of an entire planet’s shipping infrastructure. Virtually all related difficulties stem from one of the following:

  • Supply Chains Are Complex. Most supply chains comprise dozens of moving parts extending well beyond picking goods up and dropping them off, making it difficult to forecast delays and disruptions.
  • The Vast Majority of Supply Chains Lack Visibility. Just 13% of supply chain professionals report complete supply chain visibility, while the majority of respondents admitted to little or no visibility at all, making it virtually impossible to optimize resource management.
  • Everyone Wants a Faster Supply Chain. Both shippers and carriers are under persistent pressure to balance efficiency with delivery speed — even if it means excessive deadhead miles or moving a half-empty truck instead of a full load.

We’ll get ahead of this now before going any further: there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to sustainable shipping. Government regulations, consumer perspectives, tech advancements, geopolitical maneuvers and a host of other variables all play an incalculable role.

But where sustainability goals specific to your business are concerned, a 3PL can help partners make swift changes in the three key phases of everyday supply chain management:

Sustainable Storage

Before even taking cargo out on the road, your warehouse setup is consuming a vast amount of energy. Lighting, climate control and even warehouse layout likely leave some room for improvement.

Some changes are more obvious than others; commercial LED lighting consumes 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs and is continuously improving. Add in smarter management and maintenance of your facility’s HVAC system (including keeping doors and windows closed and using proper insulation) and you’ve already made a considerable dent in your monthly energy bill.

While perhaps a more subtle strategy than energy-efficient lighting, a strategic warehouse layout is also critical. A well-thought-out warehouse limits the need to run vehicles as you unload, store, pick and ship items — it also streamlines your warehouse flow to avoid time-consuming traffic jams throughout the process, which is a nice bonus.

In some climates, renewable energy sources like solar panels can provide an alternative energy source to offset traditional energy usage. Though each of these upgrades would typically represent an upfront cost to your company’s existing facilities, asset-based 3PLs with their own in-house storage spaces can relieve partners of this financial burden by handling warehouse improvements themselves.

Quick tips for sustainable storage:

  • LED lighting.
  • Well-maintained HVAC with proper insulation.
  • Programmable thermostat.
  • Solar panels and other renewable energy sources.
  • Emergency-efficient floor design.
  • Procedures to ensure equipment is off when not in use.

Sustainable Materials

It’s important to distinguish between the different levels of freight packaging when it comes to the use of certain materials in the supply chain. While a product’s individual packaging mostly depends on the shipper or manufacturer, mass freight shipping materials like pallets and plastic wrap are widely used by logistics partners to keep bulk cargo upright and intact while in transit.

On the product level, continued reliance on cheap plastics accounts for more than a third of the world’s total plastic production (85% of which ends up in either a landfill or as unregulated waste), making plastic packaging one of sustainable shipping’s primary enemies.

However, when it comes to moving large quantities of packaged goods across the country, plastic pallet “pooling” (renting pallets from a provider monitoring all pallet maintenance, storage and recycling) actually represents one of logistics’ original circular business models.

Resistance to moisture, mildew and mold allows plastic pallets to endure more trips through the supply chain than their wooden counterparts — and in the product-as-a-service model, they continually avoid a trip to the landfill by being ground down and recycled into new pallets. As a bonus, they’re lighter than wooden pallets which means greater fuel efficiency over long distances.

Beyond pallet pooling, 3PLs can further reduce supply chain waste by utilizing digital communication and processes over traditional paper resources, optimizing product storage space both in warehouses and in transport vehicles, and instilling processes to repackage, collect and properly dispose of recyclable materials.

Quick tips for sustainable materials:

  • Recyclable material usage.
  • Plastic pallet pooling.
  • Switch to digital communications.
  • SOPs for gathering, recycling and sustainable disposal of materials.
  • Maximize vehicle storage space.

Sustainable Delivery

When it comes to meeting consumer expectations for fast and sustainable delivery, a fully integrated TMS (transportation management system) to maintain cargo visibility throughout its journey is a good place to start. A good TMS holds a place among the professional logistician’s most invaluable tools for fine-tuning routes, consolidating shipments and identifying problem areas to better utilize fuel, vehicles and cargo space.

3PLs are especially helpful in this regard, saving companies transitioning to eco-friendly practices from the investment in top-of-the-line TMS software and the hassle of integration throughout a nationwide carrier network.

Soon, some 3PLs may also include electric or hybrid fleet transport options. Electric vehicles present shippers with a zero-emissions delivery option (in theory), but the effective range and stability of today’s battery tech remains, for the most part, a work in progress.

Quick tips for sustainable delivery:

  • Integrate TMS for full freight visibility.
  • Continually optimize routes to trim fuel consumption.
  • Consolidate shipments for fewer total deliveries.
  • Eliminate single-use packaging.
  • Invest in clean-energy vehicles.
  • Incentivize customers to return or recycle plastics post-delivery.

Build A Sustainable Supply Chain with First Call

If you’ve set sustainable goals for your business this year, you’re right on trend: one study shows three-quarters of today’s shoppers have parted ways with brands over conflicting values, with additional research showing 57% of millennial and Gen-Z consumers altering their buying habits based strictly on sustainability.

At First Call, we work with partners every day seeking efficient solutions for bringing products to customers — and with a growing network of storage and shipping assets, we’ve accessed new ways to customize services to your supply chain needs.

Contact a FCL team member today to learn how we’ll help you build a better, cleaner supply chain!

Simplify your Next Shipment with First Call Logistics

Building and managing cost-efficient supply chains is a full-time job. First Call’s rare combination of in-house assets, expert problem-solving and track record of stellar customer service makes us the 3PL of choice for business partners with a wide range of shipping needs.

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