Eco-Friendly Operations

Given that interest in global warming is heating up and that fuel costs have risen considerably in recent years, many companies are seeking ways to be more earth friendly and energy efficient. Distribution centers in particular have several reasons to investigate earth-friendly options.

For one, fulfillment centers need to heat and light large spaces, so any energy alternative that lowers operating costs is good for the business. Also, DCs go through mass quantities of paper, corregated cardboard, and packing materials. Any steps they can take to reuse dunnage will save money as well as help the environment. Ditto choosing eco-friendly packing materials in the first place, which will not only help the environment but also demonstrate to customers that the company is committed to treading lightly on the planet.

Here are a few earth-considerate tactics that some DCs have implemented:

LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE

Inside the DC, more companies are putting timers and motion-activation sensors and lights in bulk reserve areas, says Bill Kuipers, a partner in fulfillment consulting firm Spaide, Kuipers & Co. in Haskell, NJ. “I’m also seeing a lot more natural light, including adding windows at the top of walls and, at the end of major cross aisles, putting translucent, fiberglass panels in,” he says.

Burlington, VT-based Gardener’s Supply Co. adjusts its employees’ shifts during slower months to save electricity. The normal second shift is 2:00 p.m.-11:30 p.m., but during the off-peak season it is 10:00 a.m.-6:30 p.m., partially overlapping with the first shift. “So that’s four hours a day that we’re not having the lights on,” says senior distribution manager Peter Gaylord.

Some catalogers are switching from fluorescent bulbs to more energy-efficient T5 or T12 lights. Gardener’s Supply, for one, will soon have its lighting fixtures evaluated for efficiency and will likely switch to T5 lighting, Gaylord says.

The gardening products cataloger also uses exhaust fans that measure about 6 ft. by 6 ft. in its 120-sq.-ft. distribution center instead of air-conditioning. “They suck in the cold morning air, then we shut them down,” Gaylord says. It helps that Gardener’s Supply’s Vermont location does not get that many hot days, even in the summer.

Another eco-friendly trend making waves is wind energy. Businesses that power their operations via wind energy typically buy energy credits or certificates through their utility companies and through third-party companies that buy wind power directly from wind farms.

Only Natural Pet Store in Boulder, CO, which sells supplements, food, and other products for pets via its Website and store, recently switched to 100% wind energy to power its 8,000-sq.-ft. sales office and store. The company buys wind power in the form of certificates from San Francisco-based renewable energy options provider 3Phases. “It helps the employees believe in the company they work for, and it appeals to our customers,” says Julie Dye, marketing director for Only Natural Pet Store.

There’s no upfront investment to use wind power. Only Natural Pet Store spends about 5% more on wind power than it had on conventional electricity, but Dye says that wind power can be more economical over the long term.

State and federal programs also offer businesses incentives for switching to wind power for at least part of their energy demand. Several other manufacturers and retailers, including Austin, TX-based Whole Foods Market and Boulder-based Horizon Organic Dairy, started using wind energy this year.

PACKING IT IN

Many direct marketers are doing their part by using more environmentally friendly packing materials. Only Natural Pet Store, for one, uses biodegradable cornstarch packing peanuts that are safe for pets to eat, Dye says. The peanuts’ edibility is important to its pet-loving customers as well as to its employees, many of whom bring their dogs to work. Only Natural Pet Store purchases the cornstarch peanuts from Aardvark Box Supply. “They’re about twice as expensive [as regular packing peanuts], but we buy in bulk. As those become more readily available, the price will go down,” Dye says.

Some doubt that will happen, however. Many marketers shy away from the biodegradable peanuts, says Kuipers, because many customers dislike any kind of packing peanuts. So few catalogers want to work with the more expensive but still messy biodegradable version. “They never really took over the market,” he says.

Another potential drawback to the cornstarch packing peanuts is that they “do not handle moisture well,” according to Jasch Hamilton, founder of fresh-food mail order company Diamond Organics. The Moss Landing, CA-based company uses recyclable Styrofoam peanuts, but Hamilton says he would prefer using something other than Styrofoam, which doesn’t break down well in the environment. Diamond Organics also buys unprinted newsprint from a packaging supplier to use as dunnage.

Some companies favor crumpled kraft paper as a void filler in packages because it breaks down in the environment. Gardener’s Supply, for instance, packages products with recycled kraft paper, which costs the cataloger about $0.08 a pound. “The lighter-grade stuff works better for us during the holiday season,” Gaylord says.

LESS IS MORE

But in the quest for green materials, many merchants may find themselves using too much paper and other materials, reducing the eco-friendliness of their efforts. “People think they’re being so environmentally friendly by using newsprint or kraft paper, then go hog wild with it,” Kuipers says. “The biggest impact you can make is to use less material.”

That may mean using smaller boxes for shipping so that you need less dunnage. Or it may mean looking at alternative packaging methods that are more earth-friendly than you might have imagined. For example, “air bags are much better environmentally” than peanuts or paper, Kuipers says. “They take up less space in landfills.” The bags are also price competitive when used correctly, he adds, estimating that they cost an average of $0.03-$0.05 a bag.

RECYCLE TIME

Recycling your packaging and dunnage is another way you can do your part for Mother Earth. Only Natural Pet Store recycles all its packaging materials from vendors, Dye says. The company lets customers know about its recycling and other environmentally friendly efforts via a note included with each order.

Gardener’s Supply began recycling stress wrap, the plastic wrap around pallets, a few years ago. “We had been throwing that away. It fills up the dumpsters pretty quickly, so that really saved us on the trash-hauling cost,” says Gaylord.

Bulbs.com, a Worcester, MA-based online merchant of light bulbs and fixtures for businesses, recycles paper and cardboard it receives from local printers and catalogers for use as dunnage. “When we started the business, we bought a large commercial shredding machine. Every single piece of material that goes into packaging is recycled,” says Michael Connors, vice president of sales and marketing. The companies from which Bulbs.com picks up the paper are “thrilled that someone is willing to take that away,” Connors said.

Although Bulbs.com is probably spending the same amount to haul and recycle the paper as it would spend to buy packing peanuts, the recycling method is “something we felt we could do for the environment,” Connors says.

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