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Tricky stuff about going green

Danny Ruspandini - Impact Labs Australia
Danny R.

A lot of our clients come in our door ready to start making positive changes in their business, even if it costs them a bit.

To them, adding solar panels, paying for a sustainability audit, or signing up to a carbon offsetting program is now part of what it means to be a climate-conscious organisation.

It’s so great to see, but inevitably where the wind gets sucked out of the sails is when we start talking about supply chains.

Making changes inside your own walls is relatively easy compared to trying to force changes down or upstream. What am I talking about exactly?

Quick (anonymous) supply chain example

I recently spoke to a 5-year-old company (not a client) about their sustainability program.

Their products are luxury corporate gifts, which is a nice spin on this category. Things like wallets and phone cases made of materials that would be considered “luxurious”, with some personalisation.

Their sustainability policy that reads quite nicely, and they donate to programs that work to offset carbon through tree planting and similar initiatives.

It took them several years, and a lot of testing and sampling to land on the suppliers they now have. While their commitment to green practices reads very strong, and their intentions are really good, their one very major letdown (like most companies) is their supply chain.

Specifically, their products make at least 4 stops around the planet to be completed, with a customised template for the personalisation part that comes from a 5th location. And when I say location, I might as well say country. 5 countries across 4 continents. This is the extreme end of what I’ve seen, but am told by colleagues in the manufacturing space that this is not unusual.

To be fair, the products aren’t one-off - when you place an order, it’s likely you’re ordering a bulk amount. But still, for a product that can fit in your pocket, even if it took the most direct route between it’s 4 destinations, it’s racking up at least 23,000kms before it becomes the product that you receive. Plus almost that same distance again just for the personalisation.

That’s an enormous environmental impact for such a tiny product.

Planting trees is a great initiative, but there are so many variables. For one, the most generalised calculations state that:

  • One tree will absorb one tonne of carbon from the air, over it’s lifespan (commonly averaged out at 100 years)
  • The 23,000km journey above emits around 5 tonnes of carbon, so requires 5 trees to offset it

One complication is that the journey emits the carbon immediately, whereas the tree needs it’s full 100-year lifespan to absorb a single tonne of carbon. That means one 23,000km journey requires 5 trees and 100 years before it’s been offset.

So this company’s initiatives are commendable, but what they really need to do is demolish the transit. Which would mean manufacturing, personalisation, and fulfilment all in one country. That’s a tough ask for any company these days.

I'm not here to slam carbon offsetting or companies that use them, far from it. But planting trees that will grab carbon in 100 years isn't a free-pass. Carbon offsetting isn't a final solution - I believe it should be treated as an interim solution alongside a longer-term plan to actively reduce your emissions.

Solutions are happening, but this is a tricky challenge right now. According to ourworldindata.org, businesses generally account for two-thirds of the planet’s emissions, and 90% of those happen inside the supply chain.

Threat... or opportunity? 🤔

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