Green Logistics

Logistics is the integrated management of all the activities required to move products through the supply chain. For a typical product this supply chain extends from a raw material source through the production and distribution system to the point of consumption and the associated reverse logistics. The logistical activities comprise freight transport, storage, inventory management, materials handling and all the related information processing.

The main objective of logistics is to co-ordinate these activities in a way that meets customer requirements at minimum cost. In the past, this cost has been defined in purely monetary terms. As concern for the environment rises, companies must take more account of the external costs of logistics associated, mainly with climate change, air pollution, noise, vibration and accidents. As a society we must find ways of reducing these externalities and achieving a more sustainable balance between economic, environmental and social objectives.

When green logistics is discussed it usually focuses on the actual movement of goods by air, sea and road, nationally or internationally,  which actually is a very narrow view of green logistics overall. 

Green logistics is often defined as measuring the environmental impact against the cost of logistical activities in delivering products from A to B. There are many points at which products pass through a supply chain that have an impact on our environment.

Shopping trip or home delivery: which has the smaller carbon footprint?

It has been a hotly debated subject – but at last the verdict is in. Rather than finding that online shopping is detrimental to the environment, when considering the last mile stage only, successful home delivery compares favourably with conventional shopping. Professor Alan McKinnon and Dr Julia Edwards reveal their findings.

The verdict from Professor Alan McKinnon and Dr Julia Edwards is that in the case of small non-food items, the home delivery operation is likely to generate less CO2 than a conventional trip to the shops.

Read the full report here: Shopping Trip or Home Delivery

© 2009 Professor Alan McKinnon and Dr Julia Edwards

The Last Mile

In March 2009, J.B. Edwards, A.C. McKinnon and S.L. Cullinane of Heriot-Watt University, reported on,  Carbon Auditing the ‘Last Mile’: Modelling the Environmental Impacts of Conventional and Online Non-food Shopping, as per the introduction below.   

Several internet retailers claim that it is better for the environment for consumers to shop online and have their goods delivered to the home than to travel to the shops. This report summarises the results of research which has compared the carbon footprints of online and conventional shopping. It focuses on the carbon intensity of “last mile” deliveries (i.e. deliveries of goods from local depots to the home) and personal shopping trips.

The research focused on the purchase of small, non-food items, such as books, CDs, clothing, cameras and household items. Several last mile scenarios were constructed on the basis of official government data, discussions with company managers and realistic assumptions derived from the literature.

The analysis used representative data on home deliveries (related to drop density, distances travelled, vehicle type and fuel efficiency) and on consumer travel behaviour (related trip type, choice of transport mode, fuel consumption and the number of goods purchased). The calculation made allowance for home delivery failures (when no-one is at home to receive the goods), ‘browsing’ trips to the shops and the return of unwanted goods. No consideration was given to differences in CO2 emissions in the upstream distribution channels because they do not differ between conventional and online channels.

Overall the research suggested that, while neither home delivery norconventional shopping has an absolute CO2 advantage, on average, the home delivery operation is likely to generate less CO2 than the typical shopping trip. It was found that, on average, when a customer shops by car and buys fewer than 24 items per trip (or fewer than 7 items in the case of bus users) the home delivery will emit less CO2 per item purchased. A typical van-based drop produced 181gCO2, compared with 4,274gCO2 for an average trip to the shops by car and 1,265gCO2 for an average bus passenger.

Read the full report here: Carbon Auditing the ‘Last Mile’: Modelling the Environmental Impacts of Conventional and Online Non-food Shopping

© J.B.Edwards, A.C.McKinnon and S.L.Cullinane, Heriot-Watt University


In the same report, returns are a mitigating factor that must be considered as follows:

Typically, between 25-30% of all non-food goods1 bought online are returned compared with just 6-10% of goods purchased by traditional shopping methods, although this varies widely among product groups (Nairn, 2003; Fernie & McKinnon, 2009). The environmental implications of these online returns are strongly influenced by both parcel carriers’ returns policies and consumers’ preferred habits. For instance, parcel carriers who collect returned items as part of their usual delivery round, and courier networks that offer to take back items when their representatives are next delivering in that area, generate very little additional mileage. In these cases, an allowance is made for collections within planned delivery drop-rates, and any additional energy use is subsumed within the overall delivery round.

The situation is complicated further by customers often having a choice of returns channels. For retailers with a high street presence, customers may choose to return items to a physical store. The popularity of this method depends on the number of high street stores operating such a returns policy. For instance, a high percentage of online supermarket clothing returns are handled through supermarkets, whereas some multi-channel retailers have very little returned to stores owing to their relatively sparse high street presence.

Alternatively, customers can send items back through the standard postal service. Where there is a choice between courier or postal services,approximately half of returns are via courier collection and half by post (Beveridge, 2007). Some high street retailers find that half their returns are to stores, and the remaining half split between courier collection and the post. The modelling undertaken for this stage takes account of these different returns options.

See the full report here: Carbon Auditing the ‘Last Mile’: Modelling the Environmental Impacts of Conventional and Online Non-food Shopping

© J.B.Edwards, A.C.McKinnon and S.L.Cullinane, Heriot-Watt University

Road Haulage

In November 2008, a study by Allen, J., Browne, M., Cherrett, T. and McLeod, F. of University of Westminster and University of Southampton studied the results of 30 UK urban freight studies carried out in the last decade in order to attempt to provide insight into urban freight activities in our towns and cities.

See the full report here: Review of UK Urban Freight Studies

© 2008 Allen, J., Browne, M., Cherrett, T. and McLeod, F.

See UK Road Haulage Association views on low carbon-non carbon solutions for the haulage industry.

Clicks versus bricks on campus: assessing the environmental impact of online food shopping

Dr Sharon Cullinane, Dr Julia Edwards and Prof Alan McKinnon, Heriot-Watt University:

There is some debate concerning the relative environmental impacts of online shopping (clicks) and conventional shopping (bricks) (Sui and Rejeski, 2002; Abukhader and Jonson, 2003; Hesse, 2002). With e-tail spending in general having increased by over 400% in the last 4 years and 17.5% of all retail spending now taking place online (IMRG, 2008), it is important to understand the environmental consequences of this shift in purchasing behaviour. The debate is particularly fierce in the groceries sector, with several of the large British supermarkets proclaiming the environmental benefits of their online operations. The truth behind these claims is very difficult to assess because of the complexity of the “last mile” issues involved in comparing groceries sold online and conventionally.

In order to gain an insight into the travel issues associated with online and conventional grocery shopping, a survey was carried out on the students of Heriot-Watt University’s Edinburgh campus in April 2008. This paper contains an analysis and discussion of the results of the survey and discusses the implications for green logistics. It shows that students shop for food online less than the general population and that their shopping online for food is statistically correlated with car ownership, where they live and nationality. Overall it appears that shopping online has made very little difference to the monthly car mileage of the respondents.

Read the full report here: Click versus bricks on campus
© Dr Sharon Cullinane, Dr Julia Edwards and Prof Alan McKinnon

Further Reading

Logistics and land: the changing land use requirements of logistical activity
© Alan McKinnon, Heriot-Watt University

Developing innovative and more sustainable approaches to reverse logistics for the collection, recycling and disposal of waste products from urban centres.
© Fraser McLeod, Adrian Hickford, Sarah Maynard, Tom Cherrett (University of Southampton) and Julian Allen (University of Westminster)

CO2 Emissions from Freight Transport: An Analysis of UK Data
© Alan McKinnon, Heriot-Watt University

Traffic congestion, reliability and logistical performance: a multi-sectoral assessment Scope for modal shift through fiscal, regulatory and organisational change
© Alan McKinnon, Alan McKinnon, Julia Edwards, Maja Piecyk and Andrew Palmer

ABTS® does not own the copyright to any of the material above or reports contained within.

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