Efficient Distribution: Delivering the Goods

How products are transported is just as important as how they’re made. Here are three smart  approaches.

If you’re a progressive-minded shopper, you probably look for consumer products that are thoughtfully produced. You look for items that embody the best aspects of green design, that are made out of recycled (or recyclable) materials, and that are built by workers who are treated ethically and paid fairly. What you may tend to overlook is the important issue of distribution: how much energy is used and waste generated in getting those products from the factory to the end user. Below are three examples of companies that have minimized packaging and shipping waste by rethinking how their products get from point A to point B.

The nation’s leading mail-order DVD rental service is remarkably fast at sending customers new DVDs once old ones are returned. Rather than use a central distribution center, or even a few regional outposts, Netflix relies on 46 distribution hubs scattered nationwide. Computers coordinate millions of incoming discs and outgoing user requests according to zip code so that most DVDs are rerouted locally rather than sent back and forth across the country. This “presorting” system not only helps expedite delivery, it also reduces shipping costs by about 20 percent. The company has also streamlined its iconic red paper envelope—from 1999 to 2005 it went through ­dozens of iterations, including an early cardboard ­version—to be as light and efficient as possible.

Earlier this year the Swedish furniture giant began charging its customers in the United States five cents for each disposable plastic bag used during checkout. (IKEA donates the money to the nonprofit American Forests, which plants trees to offset CO2 emissions.) Alternatively, shoppers are encouraged to bring their own sacks, use none at all, or purchase one of the company’s reusable blue plastic totes at cost (the price has been slashed from 99 to 59 cents). It’s too early to say how successful the program has been, but a similar move by IKEA in the United Kingdom has already achieved a 95 percent reduction in plastic-bag use.

In recent years the contract-furniture companies Allsteel, Herman Miller, and Teknion have honed their packing strategies, using less packaging material and making more efficient use of truck space. For instance, rather than box chairs individually, they wrap them in layers of poly-bagging material and blankets. The blankets are reused, and the poly-bags can be recycled. Allsteel
estimates that this method increases its truck capacity by more than 40 percent (340 blanket-wrapped Sum chairs fill the same amount of space as 150 boxed
Sum chairs, for example), which also cuts down on the number of outgoing (and emissions-releasing) trucks.

7 Steps in the Lifecycle of a Green Product

1. Innovation: The Shape of Things to Come

2. The Right Materials: The Vinyl Question

3. Clean & Green Production: Balancing Act

4. Efficient Distribution: Delivering the Goods

5. Low-Impact Use: A New Standard

6. Made to Last: The Chair

7. Avoiding the Landfill: Afterlife

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