Circular supply chains – good for the planet

DHL CEO Frank Appel on why fashion and consumer electronics have the potential to be pioneers sectors in driving circular supply chain models

In a sustainability context, circularity is about extending the useful life of products and then recovering those products at the end of their life cycle. 

Supply chain is an integral part of this because it determines how products are designed, produced and distributed, with minimal waste and maximum efficiency. 

Supply chain managers – the good ones, anyway – have always sought to minimise waste and energy use, by optimising transportation routes and reducing packaging, because that makes for better bottom-line results. 

Now they also have to factor-in the use of renewable energy, and the phasing-out of environmentally unfriendly packaging materials, such as plastics.

By embracing circular supply chain principles, companies can reduce their reliance on finite resources, minimise waste, and reduce their carbon footprint.

Among the most pivotal players – along with manufacturers – in helping deliver circular supply chains are logistics companies.

One of the world’s biggest logistics providers is DHL, the international logistics division of Deutsche Post.

It operates in 220 countries, and in recent years, it has expanded its presence in the e-commerce market. In terms of sustainability, its goal is to achieve zero-emissions logistics by 2050, and it is investing in alternative fuels, electric vehicles, and other green tech.

DHL is also vocal on the importance of circular supply chains. It recently published a paper called ‘Delivering on Circularity’, which focuses on the fashion and consumer electronics industries – both cornerstones of the e-commerce boom.

In his foreword to the paper, Deutsche Post DHL Group CEO Frank Appel says the signs of climate change and environmental damage “are alarming and increasingly visible”. 

He adds that, although a shift to renewable energy is important for curbing climate change, every industry must also “examine what they can do in their specific case”. 

Circularity, he writes, is the likeliest source of “complementary strategies that addresses the impact of both emissions and waste”.

Appel feels circularity “holds the promise of saving the environment while driving innovation and growth”. 

Appel makes an important point, because in the past sustainability failed to gain significant traction because of cost. But now, the reputational cost of doing nothing far outweighs any financial burden, because stakeholders – particularly consumers and investors – vote with their wallets when it comes to unsustainable brands. 

Appel says of this: “Circular business models not only diversify product and service portfolios but positive customer engagement also serves as a brand booster.

“In other words, while circularity makes products more sustainable, solutions that also deliver business benefits make circularity sustainable.”

Regarding circularity, Appel feels it is consumer goods – particularly fashion and electronics – that “merit a closer look”. 

“The presence of these industries in our lives is nearly universal,” he says. “The potential positive impact is huge.”

Appel feels brands in these spaces have “a unique chance to deepen customer relationships in ways that will quite literally help to save the planet”.

He has a point. Taken together, fashion and consumer electronics account for approximately 6% of global carbon emissions, and waste levels are shocking: up to 20% of garments produced are never worn, while most smartphones are exchanged after just two-to-three years’ use.

DHL feels that “post-sale interventions” will be especially important if circular supply chains are to become the norm – especially around reselling, repairing, refurbishing and recycling.

The company fully expects that, as a result of this, logistics will play a more pronounced role during the extended lifetime of products and raw materials.

As well as this, DHL feels tech-driven visibility will be needed, both to marshall increasingly complex flows of goods in circular supply chains and also to ensure ease of use for consumers.

“These activities are at the core of what we do at DHL,” says Appel. “We would like to lend our expertise to the important undertaking of

circularity and play an even bigger role in addressing some of

the biggest environmental and social challenges of our time.”

DHL says that transitioning from traditional, linear supply chains toward

a closed and circular supply loop will require “close collaboration among

players, as system-changing ideas are considered and new

policy frameworks and business models are developed”.

The company has identified three core enablers of circularity:

Circular consumer behaviours  This it says will be needed to signal demand for circular products to brands. The DHL report suggests 50% of consumers are now willing to pay more for a sustainable product.

It adds that smart logistics solutions – multiuser repair

warehouses, consolidated reverse logistics for returns and

Recycling – can also act as an enabler of circular consumer behaviours.

Circular supply chains  Two main challenges exist here, says DHL: how to reintroduce end-of-life products into the cycle; and how to design

product flows and cycles in an efficient and environmentally friendly way.

The volume of return flows will increase as a result of circularity, says DHL, which adds that return flows need to be well integrated into the existing supply chain. 

It adds that to successfully engage both manufacturers and consumers while protecting the planet, supply chains “have to be designed in a cost-effective, convenient, and environmentally conscious way”. 

Building a smart supply chain that incorporates circular flows involving repair, refurbishment and resale “sets a meaningful foundation for a successful circular setup”. 

Visibility and orchestration  DHL says with the increased complexity of circular supply chains,

transparency and orchestration are vital. 

It says production planning and inventory management will need to adapt to a circular world. “The purchase scheduling of materials needs to be adjusted to the availability of recycled materials,” it says, adding: “Plus flows of post-sale products need to be considered in inventory management.”

To achieve this, DHL says digital technologies and logistics players are “critical enablers”.

Appel says: “Logistics players are ideal facilitators of circularity by doing what we do best – orchestrating the intricate flow of goods.

“Circularity is about the flows of physical goods and relies on the careful orchestration of the physical supply loop across different elements.”

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