Distributors and Sustainability

When it comes to business operations, distributors serving a variety of industries are typically most focused on improving speed and efficiency. Their job is to get products from the manufacturer to the end customer in the quickest, most efficient manner possible.

However, in just about every industry today, distributors are also increasingly focused on operating in a  more sustainable manner. In fact, some distributors are being required to take such steps by large end customers that are now focusing their attention on “sustainable supply chain management.

So what steps can a distributor take to make their facilities more sustainable?

Before exploring this, we need to clarify what we mean by the words “sustainable” and “sustainability,” as their definitions have evolved over time. Today, sustainability includes  three pillars : social, environmental, and economic factors. These three pillars can also be equated to what is called the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profits.

Here we will focus on just one of these pillars — the planet, or environmental issues, and discuss ways distributors can reduce their carbon footprint, reduce water and fuel consumption, and even measure and monitor their use of natural resources.

Location, Location, Location

If a distributor were in the process of building a new distribution center, they would have the opportunity to  take advantage of many new technologies that help make a facility greener and more sustainable. However, even with these technologies available, the most important thing to consider would be site selection. Because fuel consumption and the release of greenhouse gases are so closely intertwined, the closer the distribution center is to its network of customers or access to rail and other delivery systems, the more its carbon footprint can be reduced because less fuel will be necessary for the transportation of products, reducing the  greenhouse gases that will be emitted.

Sustainability Consideration and Initiatives

While building a new center from scratch and finding the right site is the ideal situation, the reality is that many distributors  will have to make changes to an existing facility. In order to do so, one of the first steps is to become familiar with LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance (LEED-EBOM) certification.

While an increasing number of distributors are becoming LEED-certified; at a minimum, we suggest that distributors use this information as a roadmap for what steps they can take in an existing facility to become more sustainable.

So what are some of the initiatives an existing distribution center can take? Using LEED-EBOM as a guide, these include the following:

  • If a new roof is needed, make sure the roof is properly insulated and use light-colored materials to reflect light and heat instead of absorbing it. And if you go forward with a major roofing renovation, that is also the time to think about rooftop solar panels.
  • Install skylights. Many older distribution centers are dependent on electric lighting due to the way they were constructed. Skylights and other forms of day lighting can help reduce the need for electric lighting.
  • Make sure all lighting is low-wattage florescent or LED and minimize exterior lighting.
  • Install quick open and quick close dock doors, which reduce HVAC needs especially during extreme cold and hot weather.
  • Make sure all fork lifts and delivery vehicles used in the distribution center are well maintained and designed to use fuel and electricity more efficiently. For example, keeping truck tires at the appropriate pressure can increase fuel mileage a percent or two and is easy and affordable.
  • Invest in software programs and work with vendors to better schedule deliveries to and from the site. Two of the biggest wastes of fuel is trucks idling their engines while waiting for a dock to become available, and waiting at a busy intersection to make a left turn against traffic, so they just avoid high-traffic delivery times.
  • Look into different ways to reduce water consumption—from replacing outdoor vegetation with native plants that typically consume less water to the installation of low-flow or no-flow restroom fixtures. These two areas are where most of the water is used in a typical distribution facility.
  • Make reusing and recycling of all packaging materials a “working mantra”. It can lead to new ways to recycle materials.
  • Select floor coverings, adhesives, and paint that emit low amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Measure and Monitor

These are just some of the steps that distributors can take to help reduce their facility’s carbon footprint. Often once a sustainability program is put into action, more opportunities are identified.

However, becoming more sustainable requires distributors to monitor and measure their progress to make sure they are on track. In order to help with this, some distributors use online “dashboard” systems. These systems help users record, monitor, and measure a number of metrics—from fuel consumption to water and energy use to even waste generation.

Usually the first step with these systems involves establishing a foundational benchmark. With water or energy, this requires collecting utility bills to identify the quantities consumed and related costs. In most cases, these numbers must be manually entered into the system, but sometimes it is possible to download them from the utility company’s website.

From here, it is just a matter of inputting updates and evaluating the results. For example, you decide to replace older urinals, which use one or more gallons of water per flush, with low-flow urinals that use less than 1 gallon of water per flush or waterless urinals.

After about three or four months of use, you turn to the dashboard to examine your center’s water reduction progress. Because a traditional urinal can use as much as 30,000 gallons of water annually, making this one change will likely produce dramatic results, which will be verified by the dashboard system. You can then repeat this process for energy consumption, fuel, and so on.

Furthermore, the best systems allow distributors to compare their facility to other similar facilities which is especially valuable for those who only operate a single building. This helps determine whether or not the improvements or training is having the anticipated results, as well as compare their facility to others to identify additional opportunities for improvement.

You can also use the dashboard’s results to show your customers that you are doing your part and taking the appropriate steps to be a sustainable distributor in their supply chain. And in so doing, you are incorporating steps that help decrease your facilities’ environmental impact, reduce costs, and improve your bottom line.


Stephen P. Ashkin is founder of the not-for-profit Green Cleaning Network, president of The Ashkin Group, and founder and CEO of Sustainability Dashboard Tools. He is considered the “father of Green Cleaning,” on the Board of the Green Sports Alliance, technical advisor to the Healthy Schools Campaign and has been inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame (IGIHOF).