Greener logistics – the world has a lot further to travel
Authored by Mark Rickhoff
By 2020 Unilever aims to cut its logistics carbon emissions by 40%. And the goal is to be carbon neutral before 2030. Netherlands Logistics Manager Mark Rickhoff explains how smarter planning, alternative fuels and partnerships with tech start-ups are helping make this happen
About the author
Logistics Manager Benelux, Unilever Netherlands
Mark leads the logistics operations in Benelux from Rotterdam. He is also an ambassador of sustainability in the logistics function, accelerating the transition to greener alternatives and pursuing new technologies.
We set bold targets at Unilever, and logistics is no exception. By 2020 we believe we will have cut our logistics carbon emissions by 40% compared to a 2010 baseline. At the end of 2018 we hit 38%. Our ambition is to be carbon neutral before 2030. It’s been a long hard road to get to where we are today. To reach zero emissions the world has a lot further to travel.
In logistics, costs and carbon go hand in hand. In most cases, activities that cut costs also reduce emissions. Our strategy rests on two pillars: reducing the kilometres we need to travel and greening the kilometres we have to travel. It’s seen us developing ways to fill our trucks more efficiently and shrink the distances travelled across our network.
One of the ways to reduce the kilometres we need to travel is by having different pallet heights for transporting our goods, to try to find the best option for loading our trucks most efficiently.
We’ve also worked on optimising our logistics network by locating factories and warehouses closer to large areas of consumer demand. Direct despatch from factories to customers is another way to shorten the distance our products need to travel.
Greening the kilometres we have to travel is more complex and involves investing in new technologies and alternative fuels. This is what excites and sometimes frustrates me the most.
We have an industry that wants to transition away from diesel, but without readily available zero emission alternatives on the market. We need heavy goods vehicles that can carry large volumes without contributing to air pollution and climate change.
But change is coming. Earlier in the year the European Commission introduced binding carbon dioxide reduction targets for trucks in the EU, including a stimulus for the development of zero- and low-emission trucks.
Poor air quality is an increasing concern in developed as well as developing nations.Google, for example, has just released a new digital tool that will allow a selection of European cities to measure levels of air pollution.
And rising consumer awareness of air pollution and its potential health impacts is driving innovation among vehicle and fuel manufacturers.
The year 2020 could be the breakthrough year for electric passenger cars. Heavy duty vehicles will take longer. There is a lot of excitement about the first generation of hydrogen- and battery-powered electric trucks and there are plenty of signals that the industry is getting ready. But it’s not going to happen overnight.
To move forward and continue reducing emissions today, fleets have to look at transition fuels. These are fuels that are cleaner than diesel but still contribute to climate change and air pollution.
For example, in the Netherlands we have a fleet running on liquified natural gas (LNG) which has lower carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions when compared to diesel. In Sweden, some of our vehicles are run on biofuel made from vegetable fats and oils.
What’s challenging is waiting for industry thinking and infrastructure to catch up with the potential of the new fuels available. With LNG we faced a chicken-and-egg situation where the fuel was viable, but Europe’s roads didn’t offer a sufficiently large network of LNG fuelling stations to ensure that our trucks could complete their journeys.
This led to our setting up a consortium, Connect2LNG, to build five LNG fuelling stations in France and Germany because you can’t have LNG-powered trucks without the infrastructure there to support them.
Our aim was to kickstart greater LNG use across Europe and it is not happening at scale – yet. That is part of working on new things. Every success is built on learning from failures. You just have to stay committed to positive change to navigate through the difficult times.
One of our bigger successes – the one I’m most proud of – is our partnership with the British business, Dearman Engine Company. We worked with them to trial and scale up a new technology to provide clean cooling for our refrigerated trailers through the use of liquid nitrogen, where the only emissions are air or nitrogen.
For six months we ran a trial where a Dearman’s transport refrigeration unit was fitted onto one of our ice cream transportation trucks in the Netherlands. Over 26 weeks, the truck travelled more than 18,000km to collect and deliver Ben & Jerry’s and Ola ice cream – all powered by clean cold air.
There were a few bumps in the development process, but trials in the Netherlands and Italy are now at a point where we are getting ready to launch a mini fleet in early 2020 and Dearman’s technology is getting commercially ready to hit the market and have an impact at scale.
We have been an important part of the product development cycle by opening up our supply chain to test innovative climate change solutions in real-life situations, allowing Dearman to learn from our experience.
What’s important to emphasise is that all these fuels and innovations are not competing with each other. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. We need a lot of different elements coming together.
The emphasis on greener logistics is only going to accelerate. We need urgent action on climate change and we can’t succeed without changing our transport system.
This is an area where we as Unilever wants to take responsibility. With the help of our logistics suppliers we can drive forward the market for greener solutions.
In the next ten years, things will change much more quickly than they have in the past 100 years. This means setting up new relationships with different types of companies, beyond the usual collaborations.
Because there is no one silver bullet to achieve zero emissions, the industry needs to work to get there together along many different pathways.