When we consider the supply chain, we typically think of factories, ships, trucks, and warehouses. Yet, the customer side is equally important, especially in efforts to make our distribution networks more sustainable. Customers are an untapped resource in building sustainability, says Josué C. Velázquez Martínez, a research scientist at MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics.
Velázquez Martínez, who is director of MIT’s Sustainable Supply Chain Lab, investigates how customer-facing supply chains can be made more environmentally and socially sustainable. One way is a Green Button project that explores how to optimize e-commerce delivery schedules to reduce carbon emissions and persuade customers to use less carbon-intensive four- or five-day shipping options instead of one or two days. Velázquez Martínez has also launched the MIT Low Income Firms Transformation (LIFT) Lab that is researching ways to improve micro-retailer supply chains in the developing world to provide owners with the necessary tools for survival.
“The definition of sustainable supply chain keeps evolving because things that were sustainable 20 to 30 years ago are not as sustainable now,” says Velázquez Martínez. “Today, there are more companies that are capturing information to build strategies for environmental, economic, and social sustainability. They are investing in alternative energy and other solutions to make the supply chain more environmentally friendly and are tracking their suppliers and identifying key vulnerabilities. A big part of this is an attempt to create fairer conditions for people who work in supply chains or are dependent on them.”
The move toward sustainable supply chain is being driven as much by people as by companies, whether they are playing the role of selective consumer or voting citizens. The consumer aspect is often overlooked, says Velázquez Martínez. “Consumers are the ones who move the supply chain. We are looking at how companies can provide transparency to involve customers in their sustainability strategy.”
Proposed solutions for sustainability are not always as effective as promised. Some fashion rental schemes fall into this category, says Velázquez Martínez. “There are many new rental companies that are trying to get more use out of clothes to offset the emissions associated with production. We recently researched the environmental impact of monthly subscription models where consumers pay a fee to receive clothes for a month before returning them, as well as peer-to-peer sharing models.”
The researchers found that while rental services generally have a lower carbon footprint than retail sales, hidden emissions from logistics played a surprisingly large role. “First, you need to deliver the clothes and pick them up, and there are high return rates,” says Velázquez Martínez. “When you factor in dry cleaning and packaging emissions, the rental models in some cases have a worse carbon footprint than buying new clothes.” Peer-to-peer sharing could be better, he adds, but that depends on how far the consumers travel to meet-up points.
Typically, says Velázquez Martínez, garment types that are frequently used are not well suited to rental models. “But for specialty clothes such as wedding dresses or prom dresses, it is better to rent.”
Waiting a few days to save the planet
Even before the pandemic, online retailing gained a second wind due to low-cost same- and next-day delivery options. While e-commerce may have its drawbacks as a contributor to social isolation and reduced competition, it has proven itself to be far more eco-friendly than brick-and-mortar shopping, not to mention a lot more convenient. Yet rapid deliveries are cutting into online-shopping’s carbon-cutting advantage.
In 2019, MIT’s Sustainable Supply Chain Lab launched a Green Bottle project to study the rapid delivery phenomenon. The project has been “testing whether consumers would be willing to delay their e-commerce deliveries to reduce the environmental impact of fast shipping,” says Velázquez Martínez. “Many companies such as Walmart and Target have followed Amazon’s 2019 strategy of moving from two-day to same-day delivery. Instead of sending a fully loaded truck to a neighborhood every few days, they now send multiple trucks to that neighborhood every day, and there are more days when trucks are targeting each neighborhood. All this increases carbon emissions and makes it hard for shippers to consolidate. ”
Working with Coppel, one of Mexico’s largest retailers, the Green Button project inspired a related Consolidation Ecommerce Project that built a large-scale mathematical model to provide a strategy for consolidation. The model determined what delivery time window each neighborhood demands and then calculated the best day to deliver to each neighborhood to meet the desired window while minimizing carbon emissions.
No matter what mixture of delivery times was used, the consolidation model helped retailers schedule deliveries more efficiently. Yet, the biggest cuts in emissions emerged when customers were willing to wait several days.
“When we ran a month-long simulation comparing our model for four-to-five-day delivery with Coppel’s existing model for one- or two-day delivery, we saw savings in fuel consumption of over 50 percent on certain routes” says Velázquez Martínez. “This is huge compared to other strategies for squeezing more efficiency from the last-mile supply chain, such as routing optimization, where savings are close to 5 percent. The optimal solution depends on factors such as the capacity for consolidation, the frequency of delivery, the store capacity, and the impact on inbound operations.”
The researchers next set out to determine if customers could be persuaded to wait longer for deliveries. Considering that the price differential is low or nonexistent, this was a considerable challenge. Yet, the same day habit is only a few years old, and some consumers have come to realize they don’t always need rapid deliveries. “Some consumers who order by rapid delivery find they are too busy to open the packages right away,” says Velázquez Martínez.
Trees beat kilograms of CO2
The researchers set out to find if consumers would be willing to sacrifice a bit of convenience if they knew they were helping to reduce climate change. The Green Button project tested different public outreach strategies. For one test group, they reported the carbon impact of delivery times in kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2). Another group received the information expressed in terms of the energy required to recycle a certain amount of garbage. A third group learned about emissions in terms of the number of trees required to trap the carbon. “Explaining the impact in terms of trees led to almost 90 percent willing to wait another day or two,” says Velázquez Martínez. “This is compared to less than 40 percent for the group that received the data in kilograms of CO2.”
Another surprise was that there was no difference in response based on income, gender, or age. “Most studies of green consumers suggest they are predominantly high income, female, highly educated, or younger,” says Velázquez Martínez. “However, our results show that the differences were the same between low and high income, women and men, and younger and older people. We have shown that disclosing emissions transparently and making the consumer a part of the strategy can be a new opportunity for more consumer-driven logistics sustainability.”
The researchers are now developing similar models for business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce. “We found that B2B supply chain emissions are often high because many shipping companies require strict delivery windows,” says Velázquez Martínez.
The B2B models drill down to examine the Corporate Value Chain (Scope 3) emissions of suppliers. “Although some shipping companies are now asking their suppliers to review emissions, it is a challenge to create a transparent supply chain,” says Velázquez Martínez. “Technological innovations have made it easier, starting with RFID [radio frequency identification], and then real-time GPS mapping and blockchain. But these technologies need to be more accessible and affordable, and we need more companies willing to use them.”
Some companies have been hesitant to dig too deeply into their supply chain, fearing they might uncover a scandal that might risk their reputation, says Velázquez Martínez. Other organizations are forced to look at the issue when nongovernmental organizations research sustainability issues such as social injustice in sweat shops and conflict mineral mines.
One challenge to building a transparent supply chain is that “in many companies, the sustainability teams are separate from the rest of the company,” says Velázquez Martínez. “Even if the CEOs receive information on sustainability issues, it often doesn’t filter down because the information does not belong to the planners or managers. We are pushing companies to not only account for sustainability factors in supply chain network design but also examine daily operations that affect sustainability. This is a big topic now: How can we translate sustainability information into something that everybody can understand and use?”
LIFT Lab lifts micro-retailers
In 2016, Velázquez Martínez launched the MIT GeneSys project to gain insights into micro and small enterprises (MSEs) in developing countries. The project released a GeneSys mobile app, which was used by more than 500 students throughout Latin America to collect data on more than 800 microfirms. In 2022, he launched the LIFT Lab, which focuses more specifically on studying and improving the supply chain for MSEs.
Worldwide, some 90 percent of companies have fewer than 10 employees. In Latin America and the Caribbean, companies with fewer than 50 employees represent 99 percent of all companies and 47 percent of employment.
Although MSEs represent much of the world’s economy, they are poorly understood, notes Velázquez Martínez. “Those tiny businesses are driving a lot of the economy and serve as important customers for the large companies working in developing countries. They range from small businesses down to people trying to get some money to eat by selling cakes or tacos through their windows.”
The MIT LIFT Lab researchers investigated whether MSE supply chain issues could help shed light on why many Latin American countries have been limited to marginal increases in gross domestic product. “Large companies from the developed world that are operating in Latin America, such as Unilever, Walmart, and Coca-Cola, have huge growth there, in some cases higher than they have in the developed world,” says Velázquez Martínez. “Yet, the countries are not developing as fast as we would expect.”
The LIFT Lab data showed that while the multinationals are thriving in Latin America, the local MSEs are decreasing in productivity. The study also found the trend has worsened with Covid-19.
The LIFT Lab’s first big project, which is sponsored by Mexican beverage and retail company FEMSA, is studying supply chains in Mexico. The study spans 200,000 micro-retailers and 300,000 consumers. In a collaboration with Tecnológico de Monterrey, hundreds of students are helping with a field study.
“We are looking at supply chain management and business capabilities and identifying the challenges to adoption of technology and digitalization,” says Velázquez Martínez. “We want to find the best ways for micro-firms to work with suppliers and consumers by identifying the consumers who access this market, as well as the products and services that can best help the micro-firms drive growth.”
Based on the earlier research by GeneSys, Velázquez Martínez has developed some hypotheses for potential improvements for micro-retailer supply chain, starting with payment terms. “We found that the micro-firms often get the worst purchasing deals. Owners without credit cards and with limited cash often buy in smaller amounts at much higher prices than retailers like Walmart. The big suppliers are squeezing them.”
While large retailers usually get 60 to 120 days to pay, micro-retailers “either pay at the moment of the transaction or in advance,” says Velázquez Martínez. “In a study of 500 micro-retailers in five countries in Latin America, we found the average payment time was minus seven days payment in advance. These terms reduce cash availability and often lead to bankruptcy.”
LIFT Lab is working with suppliers to persuade them to offer a minimum payment time of two weeks. “We can show the suppliers that the change in terms will let them move more product and increase sales,” says Velázquez Martínez. “Meanwhile, the micro-retailers gain higher profits and become more stable, even if they may pay a bit more.”
LIFT Lab is also looking at ways that micro-retailers can leverage smartphones for digitalization and planning. “Some of these companies are keeping records on napkins,” says Velázquez Martínez. “By using a cellphone, they can charge orders to suppliers and communicate with consumers. We are testing different dashboards for mobile apps to help with planning and financial performance. We are also recommending services the stores can provide, such as paying electricity or water bills. The idea is to build more capabilities and knowledge and increase business competencies for the supply chain that are tailored for micro-retailers.”
From a financial perspective, micro-retailers are not always the most efficient way to move products. Yet they also play an important role in building social cohesion within neighborhoods. By offering more services, the corner bodega can bring people together in ways that are impossible with e-commerce and big-box stores.
Whether the consumers are micro-firms buying from suppliers or e-commerce customers waiting for packages, “transparency is key to building a sustainable supply chain,” says Velázquez Martínez. “To change consumer habits, consumers need to be better educated on the impacts of their behaviors. With consumer-facing logistics, ‘The last shall be first, and the first last.’”