How Green Is Your Returnables Process?

Robust reverse logistics programs reap not only sustainability benefits, but they also feed the bottom line.


By examining the best way to return products while minimizing total loaded miles and total out-of-route miles, C.H. Robinson can use its vast network to decrease touch points by dropping off inventory at its closest facility. “So wait times, idle times, and out-of-route miles are reduced,” Iaria explains. “Many times on the returns side, shippers will just say send it back, but this only leads to unnecessary inefficiencies.”

Optimizing the transportation piece of reverse logistics is really about integrating both the forward and reverse supply chains to incorporate all activities involved into your transportation network so the entire network is optimized, notes Small at Inmar. “Transportation planning needs to consider the forward transportation piece as it relates to the events of reverse logistics. An example of this is how important it is to consider backhauls of returned products after a driver has delivered to stores. Moves like these should be entered into the design of your forward and reverse supply chain network.”

Today’s technology helps providers offer cost-saving recommendations that translate to sustainability achievements. For instance, by studying the data relative to a particular client, Inmar recommended how the client could operate a better optimized supply chain. “This was a retailer with a network of many national DCs servicing its stores through each of those DCs that shipped specific products,” reports Small. “We helped them reduce millions of miles of unnecessary transportation annually by recommending that they service their stores regionally out of each DC and cross-dock the different types of products from one DC to another.”

Inmar brings unsaleable products back from stores on a returning truck so no incremental miles are involved, adds Fanning. “Those are miles the trucks are going to run with returnable products anyway. By cross-docking unsaleables, they can fill up a trailer load and deliver those to our facilities—which typically are in close proximity to their DCs. So there are minimal miles driven, which lends this model to sustainability efforts.”

Goldilocks packaging: The packaging question becomes one of finding a solution without over-packaging—which is environmentally unfriendly—and without under-packaging, which can result in unsaleables. There is a big push to reduce packaging materials, reports Bodenheimer at Genco. “Oftentimes there is not enough attention paid to the potential impact on damages and unsaleables on the backend resulting from packaging that is not robust enough to withstand the normal rigors of the supply chain.”

He cautions that too much emphasis on green or sustainable goals can and do lead to serious and costly mistakes if the impact on the entire supply chain is not considered. “You really need to study and understand the data relative to your reverse logistics operation,” continues Bodenheimer. “What might appear to be a very good solution from an environmental and a cost perspective on the frontend by reducing packaging materials can actually affect a detrimental impact on the backend that far outweighs the initial cost savings.”

At the surface level, some could conclude that using a thinner or lesser-weight material for the consumer pack is a good thing because there is less weight and less waste involved, explains Bodenheimer. “The fact is that in the design of primary and secondary packaging, the consumer pack often lends additional support and resistance to compression stresses to the case or to the secondary packaging. So if you reduce the weight of the consumer packaging, that can reduce the ability to support the case.”

For instance, a mayonnaise manufacturer recently had a problem with a packaging solution that was meant to be environmentally sustainable. The mayonnaise was packaged in a glass jar and the jars were packed in full corrugate cases with corrugate dividers to protect the jars from impacting each other. “At some point, the manufacturer made the decision to change the packaging to a tray and shrink-case pack without dividers,” reports Bodenheimer. “There were significant savings and material reduction on the frontend. But the amount of damage due to breakage because of the inability of the new packaging to withstand the rigors of the supply chain was astronomical compared with what the initial savings were. So you really need a monitoring system in place that will help you predict what the impact of any change to packaging might be.”

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