Supply Chain Strategy Trend Two: Environmental Consciousness

In the previous post, I highlighted the two emerging trends that will shape the future of the supply chains. This article follows up on the second of these two main trends that affect us. We will call this trend “Environmental Consciousness” as this trend primarily focuses on the changes happening in today’s manufacturing, and distribution industries in response to the enhanced awareness of the impact of these activities on the environment.

While this trend has been in the making for some time, it has gained great momentum in the recent years. The rising awareness of the impact of the human activity on the environment is the subject of discussion in more and more political, social and economic forums. It is also the subject of numerous reports from World Bank’s Environmental Sustainability to Human Development Report 2007/2008 from United Nations.

Manufacturing and Distribution are two activities that affect the environment on a large scale. Manufacturing needs raw materials that come from natural resources in a number of cases, and the manufacturing process invariably needs energy to convert these raw materials into the finished products. Along the way it may produce wastes that must be treated, if toxic, before it can be released back into the environment. Distribution needs energy to move the products from one place to another and is a direct contributor to green house gases and resulting warming.

Supply chains manage manufacturing and distribution processes. And that is what brings them into sharp focus from this point of view.

While there are not many regulatory requirements that constrain the supply chain processes directly at this time, the indicators suggest that such requirements will exist pretty soon. For a look into what the future may look like, review the proposed carbon labeling act in California, Carbon emissions trading is already a reality in EU, and there is active talk of this system as a mechanism to control and govern the environmental effects of the industrial activities in the US as well. (Note that the US has operated cap-and-trade systems for emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides for year now).

Both of the above systems, namely the carbon labeling as well as the trade-and-cap systems can directly contribute towards controlling the environmental effects of manufacturing and retailing activities. Both affect the supply chain functions and its future evolution. The first achieves it through direct consumer discrimination based on the consciousness and the second one achieves it through regulation that affects the competitiveness of enterprises that are less environmental friendly than others.

While some of these measures will be voluntary and others regulatory in nature, it is clear that such measures will effectively change how we as consumers behave and react to products we buy. For example, consider the nutrition labels that were required to show the Nutrition Facts, basic per-serving nutritional information, on foods under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. These were introduced in 1992, and since then it has become an important part of the consumer behavior. It is not uncommon to find people checking the nutrition information in the grocery stores prior to putting the merchandise in their carts. A similar concept for carbon labeling will undoubtedly affect consumer behavior, and hence the retailer’s behavior in how these products are assorted, sourced, processed, distributed and sold.

Carbon Labeling

California’s Carbon Labeling Act of 2008 proposes to “Establish a methodology for determining and communicating the carbon footprint of a consumer product. If feasible, the state
board shall establish standards and methodologies for determining and communicating to consumers on a product label whether a product has a lower carbon footprint than the average comparable product available in the state.”

Chances are that such a methodology will include some measure of (1) energy consumed in the production of a product, and disposal of any harmful byproducts (2) energy consumed in the distribution of a product from the manufacturer to the retailer’s facilities, and finally (3) recycling characteristics of the materials used in production. Most of this information can be collected from the manufacturer and the retailer, and standardized in a format that is easy to understand and discriminate. And such labels will in turn affect the consumer preferences that drive the merchandising, sourcing, purchasing, distribution and stocking processes.


The trade-and-cap system will primarily affect the manufacturing costs and affect the overall price paid by the consumer. Environmentally unfriendly products, even if cheap, will still have some impact in the same way as the allegations of using child labor had in recent years. This combination of regulatory and voluntary pressures will affect the consumer behavior albeit in a slightly indirect manner than the carbon labels. Managing costs eventually affects the same supply chain processes as above: merchandising, sourcing, purchasing, distribution and stocking.

The decision parameters and the metrics that define and measure these processes will change in response to these changes. So far these were primarily back-end supply chain processes that were merely enabling getting the right product at the right place at the right time and quantity. In the new context, they become front and center processes whose decisions affect the ultimate profitability and success of the company.

How will these process emerge in the future? How should they emerge? That is the subject of supply chain evolution strategy that we will continue focusing in the coming weeks.

©2008; Vivek Sehgal

Supply Chain Strategy Trend One: "Rise of the Rest"

In the previous post, I highlighted the two emerging trends that will shape the future of the supply chains. This article follows up on the first of these two main trends that affect us. Quoting from Zakaria, I called the trend “Rise of the Rest” as it really summarizes the impact of this trend on the supply chains for the future.

Rise of the Rest is based on the premise that the world as a whole is evolving in all possible aspects: politically, financially, socially, and culturally. While all these aspects of this evolution are important the one we are most interested in evaluating is the economic aspects of this evolution. Growing economies around the world affect how the corporate supply chains will emerge and grow with it. It affects all aspects of the supply chains including sourcing, purchasing, suppliers, logistics, assortments, and selling.

As economies grow, so does the consumption. The new demand-supply equation affect the costs till the equilibrium is reached again. This change in costs and their management is one the trends that I believe will affect the supply chains directly.

The two largest components of costs for retailers are the cost of purchase, and the cost of distribution. Right now both of them are trending up, as they have done for most part of this year and the last year. While supply chains have always focused on costs, and cost savings through more efficient planning and operations has been their core value proposition — till now, supply chain costs have been evaluated in isolation. I believe that is about to change. Pioneers will start looking at a more holistic picture of cost of “doing business” rather than focusing on specific supply chain areas such as logistics. This broader view of the costs will cause evolution of processes that go across merchandising, supply chain and sales; and would provide a common sense of cost and profitability to the corporations of tomorrow.

While these changes could be driven from various points of view, driving them from the supply chain point of view may be most logical as the discipline already provides a framework for modeling costs, networks, processes and leverages mathematical optimization.

The Rising Costs of “doing business”

We mentioned above that the two largest components of costs for Retailers are the cost of merchandise, and cost of distribution. Cost of distribution is easier to understand as it is largely related to warehousing and transportation. The rising cost of energy has kept the focus sharp and clear on this part of the cost equation. The other cost, namely the cost of merchandise is the one that is defined in very narrow terms today, and needs to be expanded and evaluated with sharper focus.

Most corporations with advanced supply chain teams focus on both of these costs through optimizing various supply chains functions such as Sourcing, Inventory Planning, Replenishment Planning, Warehousing and Transportation. The current processes, however evaluate these costs in silos and even when optimized, the models do not provide any global evaluation of these costs or any ability to compare scenarios and predict long term effect of decisions.

I believe that this the next big opportunity for cost savings. The continuing pressure on costs with a weak economy and resulting inability to pass on costs to consumers are going to drive the companies to evolve these processes further to squeeze as much cost from their eco-systems as possible. Today there is almost no visibility or understanding of the “total costs” of the merchandise and in fact, most retailers lack the information, inclination and the capacity to do this.

To provide a better context, we will borrow from the concept of “customer life-time value” (CLV). The objective of determining the life-time value of a customer is to focus on long term customer service/satisfaction for an overall higher profits from the relationship, rather than maximizing short-term sales revenues. And putting such programs actually work — ask Harley-Davidson.

Total Life-time Cost

So what is the “total life-time costs” of a product? The question may not sound as interesting as CLV though it is a pertinent question to ask. The life-time costs of a product will include not only the cost of purchase, but cost of planning the assortment, planning the demand, sourcing and evaluating the suppliers, actual purchase costs over the whole season or life of the product, cost of distribution, cost of marketing, cost of mark-downs, cost of returns, cost of customer relationships due to gaps in the customer expectations and product functions, etc. This is what I call the “total life-time cost” picture for the merchandise and it is this picture that will be enabled by the processes of the new supply chains. It is this picture that will then become the basis for product portfolio and profitability analysis that should ideally drive the assortment decisions for the retailers in future.

Let us again go back to the “cost of distribution” for a minute. This has attracted and retained put attention not because it is the largest part of the cost ion the equation but simply because it is easier to measure and control. Most companies can track what they pay to their carriers, and how much doers of cost them to run their warehousing operations. Anything that is easily understood and measured gets our attention. Even though the “actual” costs of distribution for a specific merchandise is debatable due to crude cost-allocation practices, we at least know the total costs across the enterprise related to distribution. As far the cost allocations go, that will be the subject of another article.

Now let us look at the “cost of merchandise”. Is this the cost that is paid to the suppliers against the purchase orders? What about the cost of creating and processing the purchase orders? What about the cost of planning the replenishments? What about cost of inventory planning that determines the final replenishment numbers? What about the cost comparisons among suppliers that have contracts with price-breaks going over a few seasons, and affect the total costs over the life of the product? What about the cost of signing a contract that goes bad and needs re-negotiating or legal action? What about cost fluctuations due to currency variations for merchandise bought foreign suppliers, and transported by foreign carriers? What about customer returns, mark-downs, marketing, cost of bad assortment decisions, etc, etc. There are just too many pieces to this cost that are very fuzzily defined in today’s cost accounting processes, and therefore fail to provide any sense of “what does it really cost me”. These processes need to be defined better and tied together in the definition of “cost of merchandise” so that a merchant can actually make decisions that are objective and based on data rather than instinct and experience.

Understanding these costs will affect almost all processes — the way we assess the product profitability, assortments, sourcing, replenishment strategies, inventory policies and of course the logistics.

New View of the World

Another aspect of life that changes for supply chain strategist as a result of the “rise of the rest” is the procurement strategy. For almost two decades now, China has been the focus for cheap manufactured goods. Prior to that it was Japan. Cost equation simply worked that way. The depressed wages, cheaper energy prices, an abundance of labor, and almost non-existent middle class to drive local consumption — all of these factors favored China to be the manufacturing hub of the world.

Almost all these factors have changed in recent years with consistent trends. Refer to my previous post where I have provided links establishing the facts. Wages in China have doubled, energy prices have quadrupled, commodity prices have almost doubled, and China’s middle class has emerged as a substantial “consumer” in its own right.

The changes in each of these factors will cause changes in the procurement strategies. These changes will make the cost equation more equitable, and allow more regions of the world to participate in global commerce. What that means to the supply chain strategist is that the supply chains will grow to many more regions of the world, bringing in more complexity in ocean routes, port management, trade terms, compliance, foreign currency planning, cultural factors, financing and settlement. The increased complexity then will cause companies to re-evaluate the tools of the trade and invest in applications that help them address and grow with the new set of supply rules.

The Integrated View of Costs

Now imagine a hypothetical application that actually can project all the cost components mentioned above over the useful life-cycle of a product. And think how this will change the process of evaluating and launching a product. Also think about how such a process will have an integrated view of the currently siloed processes of product life-cycle management, merchandising and supply chains. You might shorten a season just a week to reduce the cost of mark-downs; you might split your purchases just so to optimize your seasonal ramp-down efforts in north-east that start a few weeks prior to ramping-down in south-east; you could just predict the total cost of merchandise procurement over the whole season because you know your projected demand at various nodes and command suppliers to use preferred warehouses for supplies; you could buy a week ahead to avoid the projected currency exchange rates that favor your supplier…..and so on.

Jog your imagination and see for yourself the possibilities of the future supply chain strategies and decide how to evolve to that next level.

©2008; Vivek Sehgal

Trends that Will Define Future Supply Chain Strategies

The sands of supply chain strategy planning are shifting again. It has evolved a lot, and changed a lot; and, it is happening again. The imperatives driving the supply chain for the next few years are becoming visible and they will shape this phase of supply chain evolution.

Supply chain was MRP in the 80s, that evolved to constrained based planning in the 90s, giving way to an integrated view of planning and execution currently through corporate-wide visibility and rich analytics.

Still so far, only a handful of companies have treated supply chains as a core part of their corporate strategy. These corporations have seen ample rewards in doing so. But most others had just started to seriously consider investments in supply chain strategy, when the new ground rules seem to be emerging for the next generation of supply chain thinking.

In making these statements, I want to differentiate between the automation of supply chain execution versus a truly strategic thinking that reviews the corporate supply chain from a strategic point of view that drives business functions and decisions.

  • The automation of supply chain transactions simply provides for efficient operations. Its value lies in the productivity enhancements that such systems provide. The business transactions in this category are largely standard, unvaried, and are supported through a multitude of vendor solutions available for all budgets. A good example in this category is warehouse management systems. While they do have a good ROI, these systems do not necessarily provide any competitive edge. These systems are no more elite, but have rather migrated into the “required” category if you wish to do business.
  • The strategic view of the supply chain attempts to view the corporate supply chain as a business strategy that binds together the assortment, sourcing, demand and supply management, planning and operations as a “whole” rather than the sum of its parts (like managing a warehouse). This is where the visionary corporations are focused and should be investing. This is what drives Walmart to review Brazil as a major market, GE to invest in the middle-east, and Halliburton to move their HQ to Dubai.

And it is the latter (strategic view of the supply chain) that is going to undergo major transformation in the coming years as corporations adjust to the environmental changes underway for the last year or so. We will talk about the two overbearing trends that are driving this change. Over the next few weeks, we will go into the details of these trends and the shape of things to come.

Merchandise Costs: “Rise of the Rest”

This trend has been recently highlighted by Fareed Zakaria in his new book, “The Post-American World”. He makes various arguments and illustrates them in multiple ways, but at the core of this trend is the fact that living standards are rising all around the world. The developing countries are growing at a faster pace than ever. And the combination of growth and higher living standards is pushing the wages and cost of production specifically in these regions, and generally all over the world. People have argued that this growth is also pushing the prices of food, commodities, and energy everywhere.

This trend affects the cost basis for everything that is manufactured and distributed, through the increased cost of materials, cost of higher wages, and finally the cost of transportation. The changes in the cost basis will change the outsourcing equation in manufacturing.

The commodities index for all commodities has gone up by 44% from 1998 to 2008 (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jan 1998 versus Jan 2008). Over the same time period, the index for Metals and Metal Products moved up 65%, and Industrial Commodities by 45%. All the indices were still trending upwards for 2008 at the time of writing.


The wages in China have nearly doubled in past four years outpacing the growth of GDP. (See the full story at Forbes at

According to the Department of Energy, the cost of diesel fuel has almost quadrupled in the same time from 1998 to 2008, (see,

These changes are not isolated spikes in a stable data series anymore. These changes have become trends that will define the cost equations for the decades to come. And these new cost bases will define the sources of our goods and services in the next few years. The change may not be subtle, China may not be manufacturing capital of the world any more, and India may not remain the back-end services capital. Consider some of the recent changes on manufacturing front: BMW starting a manufacturing plant in the US, Inbev buying Anheuser Busch and Chinese investments in manufacturing coming to GA facilitated by the Georgia China Alliance.

Business Costs: Environmental Evolution

The second trend that will shape the supply chains of the future is the environmental awareness, and the social pressure to address the issues related to the environment. This can manifest itself through various legal and regulatory requirements, such as the carbon trading; or in more stringent ways that affect the whole chain of raw materials, manufacturing processes, disposal and recycling. There is talk of “carbon labeling” in the industry that would require the retailers not only to gather the information but also share it with the consumers (see These changes, legislative and otherwise, will drive the companies to review their existing processes and enhance them to align with the changes in the external environment.

These changes in the environmental sensitivities have the potential of affecting almost all of the organizational supply chain processes. Some of the processes directly impacted will be assortment planning, sourcing, vendor selection, manufacturing processes, packaging, disposal, distribution.

Over the next few weeks we will dig deeper to find out how these two trends affect the supply chain strategy and planning for the corporations. Till then…

©2008; Vivek Sehgal