An Environmentally Sustainable U.S. Postal Service?

Tuesday, 6 August 2013 00:21 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Earlier this year, the 2013 Sustainable Brands conference convened in San Diego, California, and to highlight some of the ideas and initiatives represented at the conference, we asked some of the leading business executives in attendance to share with us how their organizations think about and practice sustainability across the board. Read the full series here.

The United States Postal Service has a long history of environmental awareness; a history that goes back to Benjamin Franklin, the first Postmaster General appointed by the Continental Congress in 1775.  Franklin is known as one of our nation’s first environmentalist.  His tradition and concern for the environment continues to this day.

The Postal Service, like many other organizations, is at a critical juncture in its history.   Financial concerns, created both by legislative actions of Congress as well as the impact of disruptive technology, have caused the Postal Service to rethink its business model. The issue of impact to the environment and the broader topic of sustainability must be components of a redefined Postal Service of the future.

Sound environmental practices such as energy conservation and recycling have been a part of postal operations for decades.  Recent focus upon these issues has resulted in record setting levels of performance.  In 2007 the Postal Service created the Office of Sustainability and in 2011 combined this with the Environmental Compliance function.  This structure has allowed the Postal Service to measure, manage and reduce its impact upon the environment.  We have been able to implement change that reduces both impact upon the environment and cost.

The Postal Service has very few products of its own.  For the most part the role of the Postal Service is to receive goods (letters, catalogues, magazines, newspapers and packages), process them through a network of distribution centers and ultimately transport them for delivery to households and businesses.  To date, the environmental / sustainability efforts of the Postal Service have been focused almost entirely upon our own footprint.  In other words, what environmental impacts do we create by operating our own organization.

This inward focus, at any organization, is a good first step.  Measuring, managing and reducing energy, petroleum fuel, water, greenhouse gas emissions, and waste are things that all organizations should pursue.  But it is not enough.  Organizations must also understand their entire supply chain and how the actions of their suppliers, their customers and themselves impact the environment.

The Postal Service looks to pursue both ends of the supply chain.  On the front end, we will work with the suppliers of goods and services to the Postal Service to understand their impact upon the environment.  We also want to collaborate with the mailing industry that creates all of those goods that are process and delivered by the Postal Service.

The Postal Service set 2015 as the target year to have suppliers with more than $500K in annual contracts to report a defined set of sustainability attributes.  This will provide the first effort to measure and manage environmental impact.  As we progress, we will work to achieve a reduction of environmental impact from the goods and services these suppliers provide.

We also are reducing environmental impact from suppliers through a modification to our eBuy2 system, used within the Postal Service to order consumable goods.  Again, using a defined set of sustainability attributes we will put in place a system to measure and manage environmental impact. Most importantly, we will use this system to understand environmental impact up front and remove items from this on-line catalogue as appropriate.  The best hazardous waste is the one you never buy.

Another part of the supply chain is the mailing industry; a very diverse group of companies.  It can range from Financial Service, Telecom, Insurance and Health Care companies mailing billing statements; to newspapers and magazines; to retailers mailing advertisements; to packages being shipped for companies such as Amazon or eBay.  Beyond the diversity of industries they represent, they also can range from the very largest corporations in America to the smallest of small office / home office businesses.

The industry also can range from companies that produce the mail or package themselves to mail service providers who provide both the production and logistics support required to get a product to the Postal Service.  To further compound this level of diversity, we must also remember that our customer base also includes the 314 million residents of the United States who both send and receive mail.

Given the diversity of customers, there is no one solution as to how we collaborate.  In general, we need to encourage, but not necessarily require, that the content of items sent through the mail fulfill a set of defined sustainability attributes.  Perhaps our strongest interest lies with the paper, inks, adhesives and packaging used to send mail and packages through the Postal Service network.  The actual content of mail, especially for packages, is an issue beyond the Postal Service that should be controlled by the sender and recipient.

As we look forward, an issue to discuss with the mailing industry will be the opportunity to offer a “green discount” for mailings that meet a defined level of attributes.  What these attributes should be, how they should be measure, and what discount should be offered require much more evaluation and consideration.

In contrast to the discount method, might it be better for the mailing industry to offer “green mail” as their own product outside the control of the Postal Service.  Instead of using discounts and regulations as a means to reduce environmental impact, let companies utilize a “green mail” product offering as a source of competitive advantage.  Do we use discounts and regulation to reduce the environmental impact of mail, or do we let the competitive market do the job?  A question yet to be answered.

From the standpoint of the individual consumer, it will be important to provide them information about environmental impact such as carbon accounting.  This is especially true for packages.  The system is already in place for commercial mailers the USPS Blue Earth™ Carbon Accounting service.  The next step is to extend it to the individual consumer as an option.  Beyond carbon accounting we also need to consider the availability of carbon offsets.

On the back end of the supply chain, we have the opportunity to meet the needs of our customers to assist them to repurpose, recycle or reuse products they no longer need.  This end of the supply chain may hold the greatest opportunity to impact the bottom-line for both financial and environmental impacts.  This is the area that too few organizations, including the Postal Service, have yet to venture.  How does an organization helps its customers to reduce their own impact upon the environment.

The Postal Service is uniquely situated with its unparalleled delivery network.  We reach out to nearly 153 million addresses 6 days per week.  We are already at those households, businesses and post office boxes; it takes minimal additional effort to take back a product that is no longer needed by the customer.  This is especially true if the item is under 10 lbs., such as small electronic devices, ink jet cartridges, batteries, clothing, shoes, etc.  Rather than just sending out our delivery vehicles full of mail, wouldn’t it be better to have them come back as well?  A much more efficient means of asset utilization.

The Postal Service can play a key role as the reverse logistics provider for households and small businesses looking to send back items that are no longer needed.  The Postal Service can become a key link in the concept of a Circular Economy.  Rather than creating less efficient collection system in communities throughout the US, use the Postal Service network to move recycled, repurposed and reused items in an efficient manner.  Existing barcode technology would enable dynamic routing to move product both where and when it is needed.

The Postal Service looks to engage in all aspects of the supply chain as a means to reduce the impact upon the environment; while at the same time achieving the financial benefits of both cost reduction and revenue generation.  Sustainability can be the source of innovation that redefines the Postal Service of the future.

Thomas Day is Chief Sustainability Officer at the U.S. Postal Service, leading the effort to becoming a sustainability leader by creating a culture of conservation throughout the Postal Service and leading the adoption of sustainable business practices.