Sustainability in logistics: fine line between needs & challenges

July 12, 2021
In the pursuit of a green movement, we outline the context, needs, and challenges for a more sustainable future.
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Valerica Motoc

74.5% of Europe's population lives in cities, with easy internet access and an unprecedented ability to shop anywhere in the world. We can choose from an infinite range of options. We pay quickly and securely, we receive products anytime and anywhere. The understanding that we can get whatever we wish for, delivered right to our doorstep, in just a matter of hours or days, has become the new normal.

Although for the end consumers, the process seems straightforward, taking a few steps back helps to showcase a new perspective. The big picture, beyond similarities, contains repetitive behavior that creates market trends over time. Without the slightest effort, we are laying the foundations of consumer habits that constantly transform the link between trade and urbanization.


For many years, the dynamisation of the retail market, the study of consumer trends, and the need for diversification have received all the attention of researchers and big market players. Now, under the weight of an alarming trend, the issue of sustainability in logistics comes to the fore. Last-mile deliveries are expected to increase by 78% by 2030. Another domino piece is moving: the number of transport and delivery vehicles will increase by up to 36% in 100 of the world's largest cities. Translated into environmental impact - we are witnessing a projected increase in carbon emissions from 6 to 25 million tonnes by 2030.

How can we build another future?

For defining and finding solutions and measures, it’s necessary to understand what we want to protect. Back to basics: what exactly does sustainability mean?  

The word “sustainability” is etymologically derived from the Latin word sustinere, to hold (from tenere –hold; keep; comprehend; represent; support) but it was regularly used in medieval French. Contrary to popular belief, sustainability is not just about environmentalism. In most definitions, notions such as social equity and economic development appear. Although the concept of sustainability is a relatively new one, the movement has its roots in social justice, and by the end of the twentieth century the name often appears under the idea of ​​"sustainable development".

Today, the most common definition of sustainability is that of sustainable development, defined by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987: “sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This definition, although broad, is not intended to limit the prospects or scope of sustainability - but rather to outline the importance of intergenerational equity. Simply put, we are talking about social responsibility and a dynamic balance between needs and resources.

What do clients wish for?

Fast home deliveries are still at the top of preferences. But what are the differences between the ways we shop? Is online shopping more sustainable than mall shopping?

The Deloitte study (2019) shows that when items are purchased from the store, the return rate is 7%, compared to 40% for online purchases. An example within the report talks about buying habits and impact: “If shoppers buy four items online and return two because they don't fit, the impact is 70% higher compared to buying the same products at the mall without the need to return them because you tried them before ”.

New topics arise: is the circular economy viable in the medium or short term? What ecological ways of transport are here? How do we deliver in the countryside and what do the sustainability data on airfreight look like?

The modern consumer goes further than that: beyond convenient intervals and fair costs per delivery, they begin to notice the sustainable concepts of delivery - reusable packaging and selective sorting, personalised deliveries, eco transport methods.

The year in which your clients were born matters. Although millennials are the ones who support and encourage awareness of sustainability, each age group is beginning to see sustainability and environmental protection as equally important. The choice reflects brand wellness attributes, seen as a promise and a guarantee in choosing favorite brands. Cleaner products, health, well-being - these are just some of the values ​​that drive conscious consumer decisions nowadays.

Source: "Meet the 2020 consumers driving change" - IBM Institute for Business Value & National Retail Federation

What can brands do?

In short: to know their customers as well as they know their services. Sustainable consumer decisions do not come spontaneously - they're not based on instinct, but rather are rational, intentional, built on arguments. Simply put, we are not talking about imposing strategic brand decisions, but about the responsibility to educate, nurture new mentalities and act in tandem with personal values, norms, attitudes.


When we talk specifically about logistics operations in e-commerce, we can differentiate four pillars with potential impact on the environment: transport planning and management, storage, packaging, and distribution network design.

Data says: almost 50% of car parks are standing still, unused, or poorly loaded. Through design and optimisation of the logistic networks, the establishment of intelligent routes, or the efficient management of loading capacity and routes are just a few of the solutions available, we can use them more efficiently.

Along with them, there is a new star in the market: digital logistics is what allows shippers and carriers to move products from factories or warehouses to customers, with the fewest resources possible - through optimisation, efficiency, automation. A mindset for the future combines efficiency - both in terms of costs and investments, sustainability - as a component of supply chain management, with flexibility and the ability to constantly reinvent and evolve.

We are talking about constant optimisations, data-driven decisions, shorter delivery chains, and related efficiency - by implementing an integrated management system for sales, fulfillment, and delivery activities. We are talking about choosing expansion areas with extensive prior documentation and strategic partnerships - for example, a transparent relationship with suppliers can lead to operational efficiency and cost reduction. But also about responsibility, fair play, and a concern for the well-being of the market itself, beyond gain, discounts, and competitive advantages.


In conclusion, sustainable development is built step by step, through conscious choices and modern market strategies. Big brands talk about a business philosophy focused on customers: meeting their needs at a refined level, beyond simply exposing brand benefits. But how transparent are brands with their clients in terms of activity towards sustainable development? In this green rush, much of the information displayed is confusing and incomplete. This thing gives consumers the impression that some products are more eco-friendly than they are. In this context, is it naive to believe that there is something beyond corporate PR and vague statements of sustainability? Can companies change, at least for a while, the focus on financial interest in the service of a better, cleaner world?

Like any change, the step towards sustainability requires courage - choosing a new path that provokes a change in habits and immediate financial interest. But how is courage born? The starting point may lay in authentic answers to questions such as "who are you?", "why do you care?", "what do you want to achieve?". Through an in-depth analysis of our brand values ​​and needs, we can build a business environment in which profit and ecological well-being are not in opposition. With intelligent management methods and minimal investment, we're going one step closer to a more sustainable future.

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