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"Adjustments on the part of the consumer are also needed”: Textile logistics Professor Markus Muschkiet on supply chain sustainability

By Lara Grobosch

Nov. 10, 2021

Business |Interview

Foto: Unsplash

Efficient logistics is essential for fashion labels and retailers. From the procurement of raw materials and packing to the delivery up to and including recycling – smooth organisation of the flow of goods will become increasingly important with digitalisation and increasing sustainability needs.

FashionUnited spoke to Professor Markus Muschkiet, head of the textile logistics centre at the Hochschule Niederrhein and the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics about supply chain sustainability, environmentally-friendly modes of transportation and concepts for the last mile.

In which areas can clothing logistics help fashion companies that wish to be more sustainable?

Disposal and the flow of goods are a major problem. In the textile and fashion industry, we have developed such that we have a very large number of fibres, special coatings and above all blends of various fibres which can’t be recycled at all. The greater the number of different materials that are combined, regardless in what form, the harder it is to recycle. Textile finishings have an enormous impact on their recyclability. With recycling, the logistics which control these flows of goods come back into play: what is collected and how, which quantities, what can be done with that, how can we recycle or reuse it. This cannot be achieved without the physical link provided by logistics.

Which mode of transportation is the most sustainable on the way from the production plant to the store?

If one looks at this from a sustainability standpoint, maritime traffic is calculated in terms of the individual unit, the most sustainable version. Due to economies of scale, this form incurs the lowest amount of CO2 per individual t-shirt or pair of jeans.

Shipping by train is an interesting addition, but only for certain markets such as from China. However, whatever is transported daily by train there is of course less than can be transported by a single, large container ship. Otherwise, rail traffic is, by and large, underrepresented in our industry due to speed.

Within Germany for example, there is as good as no rail freight with textile products. When the container arrives at the port in the morning, I want to know that it is on the lorry a few hours later and, by evening, that it is in a warehouse somewhere in Germany, the Czech Republic or the Netherlands and, as a result, that it is available on the website or can be forwarded to the branches at night. One doesn't wait one and a half or two days for a train to move a product a few hundred kilometres. This is where the factor of speed comes to bear, which is the reason why rail unfortunately doesn't offer the right services for our industry.

Foto: Prof. Markus Muschkiet

And air freight is the greatest environmental villain?

In terms of sustainability, this is the worst mode of transportation. Air freight emits many times more CO2 compared to all other modes of transportation. If I want my label to have a green image, then I should do everything I can to avoid flying. The fact that this is not clear on the basis of the processes, but of course flying is the most damaging of all modes of transportation – whether personal or freight – it’s the most harmful.

At the moment, how much is being transported by air freight in the fashion industry?

Until a few years ago, textiles were among the top five goods imported as air freight. Whether we have climbed in the ranking as a result of the pandemic remains to be seen. This will be determined based on customs declarations. A breakdown of how much, where and what form of air transportation was used is something that is not disclosed in the industry. However, as explained before, this also involves cost decisions. In areas where time to market is of utmost importance such as with fast fashion, air transportation is used despite the relatively low value of the cargo.

Which mode of transportation will become increasingly important for a sustainable future?

There will be upheaval that will differ from market to market depending on where I am coming from. From the Far East or even India and Bangladesh, apart from air transportation, there are hardly any other possibilities apart from the container ship. There will be no major changes in this area. In the end, the biggest factor will be distribution within Europe. If we manage to put more goods on the train because processes are designed, for example, so that an additional day of transportation is perhaps not that bad if I save considerable amounts of CO2 as a result, this would constitute considerable progress. However, one should not underestimate that though customers always say they want everything green, the reality has shown us the exact opposite. The pressure on our industry is extremely high. Companies must do everything they can to be greener, but at the same time aren't allowed to become more expensive or modify their tried and tested processes designed to pamper their customers in such a way so as to inconvenience customers.

So customer sustainability awareness stops when one has to restrict oneself?

Exactly, there are certain parameters in fashion logistics that one can change to a certain degree without the customer noticing any serious decline in the service. However, in most cases, things get difficult if one goes further than that. Though sustainability is being demanded, as soon as sustainability starts to affect customary buying behaviour, it is generally not rewarded by customers, which is a problem for the industry.

In particular, in order for the fashion industry to be sustainable, particularly in terms of speed, adjustments or changes on the part of the customer are needed in order for things to change.

From the plant to the fashion label or from the label to the consumer: Where is the largest amount of CO2 emissions and waste produced?

Waste repeatedly occurs throughout the entire supply chain depending on how it is packaged. In fashion logistics, we have a situation that individual articles of clothing are often packaged in a polybag in order to protect them against external influences. If I repackage goods, this of course produces waste.

In general, it is impossible to say where the largest amount of CO2 is produced. It depends on how the customer gets to the store or how the goods are delivered. If the customer walks to the store or cycles there, then obviously this route comes out on top. However, this is over as soon as customers get in their car. If, for example, I relate how much fuel is consumed to transport a pair of jeans and the t-shirt from the Far East to Hamburg, then maritime freight burns less fuel per item than a customer's drive home.

And if the goods are delivered to the customer?

From the production site to the distribution centre or warehouse in Europe, the burdens on the environment are very much the same and then one must differentiate. Either I take it from their to the sales area in the store or I deliver it to the customer via an express courier parcel service (CEP). The parcel doesn't fare quite as well, but then there's the customer's trip from the store home. This is a complete transport trip and is the most inefficient. Of course, the version with the delivery vehicle is worse than by foot or bike, but calculated in terms of the individual item, it is much more effective than if the customer drives to the shop on their own. If I don't make this step completely CO2-neutral, then in many cases e-commerce is more sustainable. In the end, it really depends on the individual case.

Sometimes, the last mile can be the longest. What are the challenges when it comes to delivering to the end customer?

The lack of parking and above all, these delivery options pose a challenge. Also the fact that by far not all vehicles are environmentally friendly is a problem. Many still drive a traditional diesel. But also electricity for electric vehicles must be generated in a climate-neutral manner.

What concepts are there for the future of the last mile?

The burning question is: Where do I meet customers in the last mile? Currently, during these times of working from home, the situation changes when everyone goes back to the office after the crisis. As a CEP service provider, I have the problem of when I can deliver and where. We have to design our processes more effectively and more digitally in order to improve communication between the CEP services and the customers and, as a result, better meet the needs of the customer.

Can you provide an example of a more efficient solution?

An example of such a solution is that the customer is able to inform the delivery agent that "I am working from home on Thursday": On Thursday, please deliver all parcels to my home that I receive from Monday to Thursday”. In some cases, storage services like these are already being offered. However, customers must also be willing to wait for their orders – however, in many cases, they are not willing to wait. Bundled deliveries, deliveries to one's place of work, increased use of parcel stations and private parcel lockers or delivery to homes only for a surcharge – these are the different business models being discussed in the industry. In the end, it will be a combination of specialised services, or perhaps adjusted services or less extensive services.

This article was translated from german