Supply chain managers in all kinds of industries are thinking about how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many of those conversations have focused on shipping, and specifically on transportation. That’s not without good reason. Trucks and aircraft burn a lot of fuel as they crisscross the country. And in an era of global supply chains, managers need to consider that emissions in the developing world, where regulations may be lax, may far exceed emissions at home.
But transportation isn’t the only part of the supply chain that can cut emissions. According to the United States Green Building Council, buildings are responsible for about 41 percent of the country’s energy use, outpacing both the industrial and transportation sectors. Green building — designing new structures that are LEED-certified, use sustainable materials and create less waste — is on the rise. In some regions, retrofitting old buildings is becoming attractive as well.
Is your company planning to reduce its carbon footprint and invest in more sustainable warehouses? Here are some warehouse management features you should consider.
1. Choosing the right warehouse location
Fulfillment centers can help reduce transportation emissions simply by being situated in the right places. The less zigzagging packages have to do as they cross the globe, the less pollution each creates.
First, warehouses should be located close to freeways, ports or airports. Each warehouse is just a stop along the supply chain; most packages will travel through several facilities before they reach their customers. The closer warehouses are to the next leg of their journey, the fewer extraneous miles packages have to travel.
Second, warehouses are more efficient when they are close to urban areas. This typically means they’re closer to freeways, ports or airports, as described above. It also means they’re closer to their end customers. Whether last-mile deliveries are made by UPS’s big brown trucks or DHL Parcel Metro’s third-party couriers, strategically located fulfillment centers can shorten each of those trips, cutting down on tailpipe emissions.
Third, warehouses can employ hundreds of people. All of those people need to commute to their jobs daily. The closer warehouses are to urban centers, the shorter those commutes get. Better yet, warehouse owners may be able to locate their facilities near public transit, or lobby for bus routes that serve their employees.
Finally, when fulfillment centers locate near urban areas, they cut down on the need for new infrastructure. If streets, utility lines, water pipes and other public resources are already in place, less building has to be done and less land has to be developed.
2. Using the right building materials
Warehouses can be enormous facilities, stretching hundreds of yards in all directions. Building them requires an enormous amount of material. Owners can encourage construction engineers to use sustainable or recycled materials from the ground up. These might include specialty paints, adhesives, wood products and carpeting, with sealants and other additives to increase durability.
Building owners should also think about ongoing utility costs. Heating and cooling huge spaces can be wildly expensive, and utility costs tend to rise every year. Quality insulation and ventilation systems may be expensive up front, but they can pay for themselves if they reduce utility bills month after month.
Heating and cooling are enormous expenses for warehouse-sized buildings. In almost every climate, fans can help. “High volume low speed” fans can efficiently move cool or warm air around a space, reducing the need for intensive air conditioning or heating.
3. Installing sensors to gather information
After construction, building owners may want to gather data about how their building is being used. Are parts of the warehouse empty for long stretches of time? If so, turning off lights, heating or air conditioning, or gas in that part of the building could increase energy efficiency.
Today’s warehouses are fully wired. Every section of the warehouse is likely to have not only lights and fans, but charging stations for the hand-held devices or headsets that workers use on the job. In the not-too-distant future, warehouses may include more and more automation — robot package retrievers, for instance — all of which require energy.
Motion sensors are already used in many industrial buildings. They prompt lights to turn on when someone enters a room, and they can do the same for fans and computer equipment.
Submeters can also be useful investments. These devices can keep watch over machinery and equipment like refrigeration units, switching them into low-power mode when possible and gathering day after day of data about their use.
The more information warehouse managers have about how space is used, the more they can optimize it. Don’t discount the importance of data — either literally, as you invest in warehouse technology, or figuratively, as you plan for the space.
4. Installing the right lighting
One of the easiest and most widely adopted energy-efficient upgrades of the last decade has been replacing incandescent and fluorescent lights with LED lights. LEDs last longer, have lower energy consumption, and are an affordable option for existing buildings that want to be energy efficient.
An executive with Prologis, a global warehouse operator, told Supply Chain Dive in March that her company has LED lighting in 27 percent of its buildings at the end of 2018, and “efficient” lighting — T5 or T8 fluorescent — in 88 percent of its buildings. They hope to reach 100 percent LED lighting by 2030.
5. Looking outside the building
Most warehouses are built like boxes, meaning they have long, flat roofs. In the right climate — and that might be more climates than you expect — this presents a great opportunity for solar panels. If a facility can generate even some of its own electricity, it can significantly reduce its ongoing utility costs.
Solar panels don’t have to be a huge up-front investment, either. Many companies install solar panels and retain ownership, allowing warehouse owners to enter into lease-to-own agreements or to pay an agreed-upon rental fee.
If solar panels aren’t feasible, warehouse owners might want to consider a “cool roof.” This is as simple as painting a roof white or with specialized reflective paint, so that the roof reflects sunlight rather than absorbing it. This helps keep the building cool, reducing ongoing HVAC costs.
Finally, consider landscaping the warehouse modestly or using native plants. Between 30 and 60 percent of urban fresh water is used on lawns, according to one Columbia researcher. Water-efficient landscaping can reduce water use — and water bills — dramatically.
Why make a sustainable warehouse?
Designing a sustainable warehouse is not cheap — at least not up front. Warehouse owners who want to create sustainable buildings will need to invest in specialized building materials and technologies, as well as pay for contractors and consultants with the expertise to do the work well.
The good news is that this expertise and these materials are getting more affordable all the time. LEED certification is decades old now. Solar panels get cheaper every year, and installation companies are springing up all over the country. As demand for sustainable technologies grows, manufacturers are producing more and more of the necessary tools.
Plus, investing in sustainability practices now means reaping the savings for the life of the building. Lower electric, water and gas bills will arrive every month for years to come. Hiring gets simpler when potential employees can have short commutes with multiple transit options.
Finally, designing for sustainability isn’t just good business — it’s simply good. Manufacturing, shipping, product design and fulfillment all have roles to play in reducing emissions and environmental impacts, and making our supply chains more sustainable for our current customers and our future ones.