Manhattan Associates' Exchange 2022 event

Editor’s blog: First I hear from Manhattan, then we visit Berlin

A headline for Leonard Cohen fans.

Maybe a niche headline, but then I’ve spent a career writing about niche areas. And the trip to Berlin I went on this week was no different.

Manhattan Associates, a supply chain software provider and early commercial supporter (thanks!) of Green Retail World, invited me out to Berlin for their annual Exchange event. All things supply chain were covered during the three-day conference, but in particular I was looking for evidence that retailers and the wider ecosystem supporting them are adopting greener thinking from a supply chain perspective.

The jury remains out as to whether they are or not. Making sure customers are happy, and tech investment – and in many cases, top-to-bottom transformation – in the so-called ‘back end’ are the things that are really front of mind for the retailers I did catch up with or hear speak during an impressive conference agenda.

But there were some intriguing trends and factors to consider from a greener thinking point of view.

Sustainability starts with efficiency

Clearly, shipping goods around the world to support global commerce is not high up on the list of environmental wins. I discuss this in one of several blogs I wrote for Manhattan while at the event. But where I see a chance to talk about the green agenda in a positive way when it comes to retail supply chains, is in the drive for efficiency.

Businesses aren’t green. Nothing is sustainable. Everything leaves a footprint. All of that is clear, but it is equally true that all businesses can be better from an eco-stand-point.

So if we look at sustainability in the supply chain from an efficiency perspective, there is much to be positive about.

All retailers are laser-focused on efficiency – and that in itself should result in creating processes that are better for the planet. Retailers are not going to stop procuring and shipping goods but if they start doing it in a more efficient manner then they’re going to stop ‘shipping air’, they’re going to optimise their supply chains, and they are going to be as streamlined as they can be. All of that takes carbon out of the system in terms of reducing the number of wheels on the road, the number of journeys it takes to get goods from A to B, and general wastage.

Manhattan – as do other warehouse management providers and tech companies – has software to help with that. And retailers should be looking to it to help make them more efficient (and therefore enabling them to decarbonise) wherever possible.

This is all important stuff to be working on, while in the meantime the infrastructure is laid down for reducing reliance on fossil fuels in transportation and other more fundamental change in how businesses operate is put in place. Lots of retailers are doing this by the way, but it’s not easy to do it quickly and at scale.

Return of the pack

The above crosshead paraphrases an arguably less influential musical figure than Leonard Cohen. However, a play on Mark Morrison’s 1996 hit neatly leads us on to the subject of retail returns.

In the conference halls and foyers at Exchange, I chatted to retailers about returns. I said, “hey, if you could convince customers that escalating returns are bad for the environment, maybe they wouldn’t do it so much”. Those I spoke to said it was a good idea but it’s much more complicated than that.

I have no doubt that’s the case, but nevertheless it’s an interesting theory I’ve developed following my three days at the Berlin conference. And Manhattan is putting tech capability out there to help retailers give their customers more power at the point of purchase, which could in turn be good for efficiency. The ability to change their order after it’s been made, for example. Such choice might help shoppers make more certain purchasing decisions as opposed to speculative ones – and therefore reduce the volume of returns we know leaves such an environmental footprint.

Anyway, they were my key takeaways from the event.

There’s no doubt there’s huge innovation going on in the supply chain space – and Manhattan is a big part of that, helping companies from Aldi Sud and L’Oreal to Asda and Scotch & Soda undertake major overhauls of their respective supply chain operations. But in terms of making supply chains greener I think there’s real opportunity in 1) focusing on efficiency, and 2) trying to cut out those returns.

Baby steps in the grand scheme of the climate crisis, but positive ones nonetheless.

Hallulujah, as Cohen might say.

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Ben Sillitoe, editor, Green Retail World (@bsillitoe)

[Image credit: Green Retail World]

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