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What does the supply chain of the future look like? Thomas Dammann (Vice President Sector Development - DHL CSI) discusses how DHL is working to ensure today’s healthcare can deliver on tomorrow's sustainability goals.

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Less energy will be used in 2021 worldwide


Decrease in jet fuel demand, year-on-year to April 2021

How Can We Create Long-term Value for Business and Society?

Thinking back to when COVID-19 first hit, I remember a sense that everything had changed, almost overnight. Where we went, how we interacted with one another, the ways in which we worked. For many of us, that meant priorities shifted too. I think this also holds true on a macro scale. Before the pandemic, many of us were committed to tackling global warming, then considered the world’s greatest threat. But, over the course of the past year, the coronavirus has quickly overshadowed the climate crisis as governments rush to protect the lives of their citizens. You only have to consider the 29 billion disposable face masks and 65 billion gloves being used every month to know that COVID-19 is in the driving seat now. 

That’s not to say there haven’t been some environmental wins during the past year. It was particularly heart-warming to hear fish had returned to Venice’s famous canals for the first time in years, all because pollution levels had plummeted amidst local lockdowns. It’s a small win in the scheme of things but significant nevertheless. And there has been broader progress too: 

  • It’s estimated that the world will use 6% less energy this year – the equivalent to the entire energy demand of India – meaning there’ll be a large drop in carbon dioxide emissions 
  • According to the International Energy Agency, global average road transport activity in 2020 was half that of 2019 
  • Demand for jet fuel was also down 65% year-on-year to April 

But, when normal life resumes – or at least the ‘new normal’ – is it feasible to think these improvements will be maintained? And are they enough to halt global warming anyway? Opinions vary of course, but from what I’ve read, experts think not – on both counts. 

Supplying Demand

I’ve spent many years working in the supply chain industry and one of the biggest knock-on effects of the pandemic for us has been the unprecedented rise in e-commerce. The US has just recorded the highest annual online sales growth of any year since records began and you only have to try to book a grocery delivery where you live to see that this trend isn’t limited to America.

Vaccine distribution, too, has levied substantial pressure. It’s estimated that over 400 million doses have been administered in over 130 countries so far, and that figure is only going to keep on climbing.

Given the above, I think it’d be hard to doubt the necessity of the supply chain. But when a global emergency hits, should all other considerations go out of the window? A year in, and I believe it’s time for logistics operators to start readdressing the balance, in sustainability terms.

Every Little Helps

Reducing our impact on the environment at a time when there’s strong growth in global logistic activities is challenging, but it’s also our only option if we’re to deliver truly sustainable progress. Our new DHL sustainability roadmap sets out our combined company-wide ambition, but what of the life sciences supply chain specifically? My role focuses on serving the evolving healthcare sector, and so I’m particularly invested in finding sustainable solutions that can optimize our offering. Solutions that can increase efficiencies and be resilient enough to continue delivering against a backdrop of growing demand and diversity. 

Before I came to healthcare logistics and supply chain, I had worked in several industrial sectors including holding leadership roles in technology. And it’s perhaps because of this background that I believe the answer rests in innovation – a field in which DHL is already making great strides. Three areas I’m especially interested in are:

  • Digitalization: we can see that emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain, robotics, and data analytics are rapidly accelerating the rate of change across the industrial landscape.  Leveraging these advancing technologies to design and continuously improve the sustainable supply chain of the future will aid visibility, streamline inventory levels so that product demand is met while minimizing technologies becoming obsolete.
  • Closed-loop logistics: facilitating a seamless inbound flow of returns means less waste, and ensures fewer new materials are introduced into the chain. 
  • The Internet of Things (IoT) technologies: the IoT allows us to do far more than just track a parcel’s progress in transit. Multi-use digital data loggers can provide real-time reports on the condition of each package, guarding against changes in temperature, humidity, shock, light, and even air pressure. This is invaluable when, for example, we need to transport vaccines at sub-zero temperatures: should shipment conditions move into a range that might lead to the product quality being compromised, a warning is transmitted, alerting team members to check or replace items before they reach the end-customer. This is far faster than carrying out manual checks and, crucially, reduces the carbon emissions associated with a wasted delivery. 

Moving Forward

We also have the opportunity to think about how we can provide sustainable temperature-controlled packaging options. Can plastic bottles be recycled to make temperature-controlled packaging? Can we use recycled cardboard for pharmaceuticals and medical devices? Keeping sustainability at the heart of everything we do will continue to reduce our carbon footprint.

Achieving More With Less

Sustainability can no longer be thought of as a preferred direction for the industry. It must be mandatory. It’s already too late to be thinking about offsetting greenhouse gas emissions – that ship has sailed. We need to deliver a truly decarbonized offering that can dramatically reduce environmental emissions and pollution, without compromising our service, standards, or reach. And we need to start today. For it’s only through sustainability that we can create long-term value for business and society and build robust healthcare systems that can meet the demand for years to come.  

Thomas Dammann

Vice President Sector Development - DHL CSI


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