Exploring eco-friendly logistics

Exploring eco-friendly logistics: A conversation with Sendle’s Director of Sustainability


Written by David Renwick

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Sustainability is a challenge facing businesses in almost every industry as they work to cut their carbon footprints and provide consumers and clients with greener options.

To find out how businesses working in the shipping industry can focus on these challenges in the right way, we sat down with Sendle’s Sustainability Director Venna Harbaugh to talk about the company’s impact pillars, how it chooses sustainable partners, and why sustainability is such a key part of the company’s mission.

Hi Veena, could you give us an introduction to your role at Sendle and what the company does?

Hi David! I'm the Sustainability Director at Sendle and that is a really amazing job because I get to spend all of my time focusing on how Sendle as a company, which is a B Corps that's been around since 2014 doing shipping for small businesses, can have the most positive impact. And that's in two ways: through reducing the environmental harm of shipping and supporting our small business customers.

Sustainability is a hard topic for any retailer, so could you just give us a high-level overview of the challenges in this space, from Sendle's point of view?

Honestly, they’re as big as the challenges that humanity is facing, which sounds dramatic, but that's intentional. We want our business to be addressing the biggest challenges.

We see those as the climate crisis and increasing inequality, specifically, within the climate crisis as eCommerce booms, that we're going to have 800 billion packages sent per year by 2030 as that just becomes the global norm.

That’s five to six times more than the carbon footprint of shipping is right now. We know for the climate crisis we need to bend that curve in the opposite direction, so what we're focused on is what we can do to address that.

Then with the inequality piece there's a really interesting story of how it's getting increasingly hard for small businesses to compete. At first with eCommerce there was a wave of democratisation where anybody could set up an online store, you didn't need to have the investment of a brick and mortar location.

But what you need is affordable and reliable shipping and small businesses, as you know, are often paying quite a bit more than the contracts negotiated for large companies. So that cross subsidy that's happening between small businesses and large businesses in the shipping space is the other thing that we're seeking to address.

On that point, Sendle has these very strong impact pillars. Could you give us an overview of what some of those are and how they are implemented?

Yeah, absolutely. There's a kind of an old concept of materiality and you look at what your business does and you look at what are the most kind of material or relevant pieces. So as I said before, we used B Corp certification to ask “what are all of the things that we could do as a better business?” But then we look strategically as these are the areas where we can have the most influence by what we do.

There are three pillars. One is the environmental impact of shipping. That's a problem headed in the wrong direction and the biggest piece there is the carbon component.

So what we focused our time on is, how can we address that now today with what's available? We do that by working to reduce the amount of carbon that's used in shipping by working with carriers to optimize their trips but then also addressing the carbon footprint today through offsetting projects. We’re then working to create the shipping network that we're going to need for a net zero future. So that's the big one, reducing the harm of shipping and then within that working to decarbonize the shipping network.

The second one I've already mentioned is about working to level the playing field for small businesses. That's making sure they have access to the rates and services that they need to compete.

We really see that as an important part of the potential impact that Sendle can have. Through our customers is a place where we really can have an amplified impact that actually really matters to their business and if they're able to sustain their growth or not.

The last one is we know that we're operating in an industry that historically has a dirty footprint and sometimes can be slow to change. What we want to do is really use our position to shine light and change the industry. Our better business practices by being a B Corp, also calling on our competitors to follow the same practices as us and generally just proving that it's possible.

One thing I'd like to particularly draw attention to though, is Sendle has that statement about how green shipping shouldn't cost businesses more. I think that's probably a concern for all businesses, both small businesses shipping 50 packages a week to those shipping 5,000. What do you think?

With that pillar of leveling the playing field for small businesses, we can't do that if sustainability comes at a premium right? As we said, small businesses are already facing some uphill battles to compete with larger retailers, we can't add on an extra cost there for them and it's also short-sighted if we've used sustainability that way and we're only going to shift it for a small percentage of the market.

So one thing we've been committed to the whole time is not having that be a trade-off. The cool thing is that since the beginning we've proven that that's possible, so we offer small businesses better rates and carbon neutral options and have been doing that the whole time.

I think as we look to the next frontier there will be two places where we're gonna need investments to create green infrastructure, right? It's going to cost some money to switch our depots to be powered by renewable energy and to install electric vehicle fleets, but with each of those decisions there is an economic benefit.

Wherever there's a cost efficiency benefit, there's usually a carbon benefit. So that's where really focusing on optimizing routes or even just Sendle’s model in general to send parcels on trucks that have unused capacity, those are the types of solutions that save money and save the environment. There's so many more of those still to be found just because the industry does need to shift to be more efficient and prepared for home delivery.

So Sendle has B Corp certification and a Climate Neutral certification, what are some of the ways you're tracking or measuring the success of those achievements?

Both of those are quite comprehensive. So with B Corp, it’s an ongoing process of recertification every three years. So that's really helpful because it gives you a snapshot in time of where to grow and improve your business. With Climate Neutral as I mentioned before, carbon is the most material part of our business.

Since the beginning, we had been offsetting and tracking the carbon footprint of our shipments and offsetting that but we hadn't looked at other parts of our operations. We hadn't looked at employees’ home energy use or commuting or travel just because the shipping footprint was so large. This concept of materiality applies there.

We need to spend the most time measuring the biggest part, but as we looked into it, we were surprised that a quarter of our footprint is through our direct operations as well.

Things like travel advertising and even the mailers that I mentioned, that increases our carbon footprint. So by measuring and managing that is when you get specific on the carbon footprint. Going down to that level of detail instantly prioritizes what you need to do.

Make sure that you're spending your time on what matters most but also if there are things that are easily within your control to address those as well. So for example, travel is one that is in our direct control. We can make choices about hosting virtual retreats just as often as we host in-person retreats, so that's been an easy win first there, but you have to hold the big picture in mind too.

With the mailers, a carbon reduction strategy we could have is to no longer offer that to our customers, but then the real goal there is for making this industry sustainable and supporting our customers. You just kind of have to measure and manage, but then also hold the bigger picture of what you're trying to do.

In terms of holding the bigger picture, obviously you've got a huge partner network. What do you look for in other partners and how do you align them with Sendle’s measurable goals?

The biggest thing is, we're an asset-light carrier, so we don't have our own trucks or employ our own drivers. We're really dependent on finding and supporting carriers on their journey and so something that we spend our time on is making sure that the carriers we're working with have their own plan that they're working against.

There's some that are at the very beginning of their journey and just have one key customer that’s starting to ask these questions or offer them back their carbon footprint. Sometimes that's the starting point of these conversations. With other ones, they’re kind of already committed. They have their priorities and their annual goals, but having a customer that is keyed in where that's a priority for them, that creates a business case on their side.

I think we have this really clear impact strategy and then with each partner, it's around just asking where does it line up? Are there any tensions? If so, how are we going to address those over time? But usually, when we're working with partners they're able to see the aligned opportunity and we're able to kind of focus in on that.

And as you were saying at the start, everyone's very much aware of the problem anyway. So it's probably not just an issue of education, it’s more like “Hey, this is what we're doing and we need to get you on the same page’.

Exactly, and I feel like the biggest thing for us is what pace of change are we asking for? I think I'm often not needing to convince people that it matters, but by us having a strategy and consistently talking to partners about that strategy, what we're seeking to do is increase that pace because that needs to happen.

We're gonna hit inflection points on all of this where there’s a transition and you're not going to have a shipping company that's powered by fossil fuels in the future, right? That won't work. But what is the point where we're making that transition? And can we make that transition fast enough to be maximally beneficial for people?

And just bringing it right down to a small level, you’ve mentioned before a success story with The Print Bar. Can you explain that to us?

The Print Bar prints T-shirts in Australia and they are a Starshipit customer as well, just to show you the power partnership there between Sendle and Starshipit. Jared, the founder there, he really exemplifies some of the points that we've talked about in the past. He's a founder that cares about sustainability but also needs shipping to be cost effective and to be able to compete with what their customers expect in terms of reliability and service.

They've been using Sendle for quite a while now, and their volume has grown to the point that just their savings alone through Sendle is over $6,000 a month. So having $6,000 a month that they’re able to reinvest in their business has been huge. They exemplify a lot of the potential in very easy day to day benefits that entrepreneurs are looking for, like saving time and money, how simple it is to use, and how they really like the integration with Starshipit.

But then also some of this big picture stuff. Jared said that because Sendle’s doing the best job in the sustainability space, he doesn't have to worry about it as much.

What we're really trying to do is to say, yeah, this stuff is kind of complicated, there are really kind of deep issues here and as an entrepreneur you can be making a difference on these big issues without losing as much sleep or staying up to date on all of the sustainability issues within shipping. We've got that covered for you.

What would be your key points for other businesses that wanted to follow that example?

Something that we've talked about is lining up your sustainability goals with your business goals. So one, I think, is just looking at where are some of your business challenges? There's probably a sustainability challenge in that.

Some of customers' biggest challenges are often returns. How do you minimize it for these eCommerce retail businesses? How you address that can also be a sustainability solution. Do you need to add more information, videos, things like that to your website? Could you partner with a nonprofit to have returned products directly go to them if you're unable to restock or resell? Finding a business problem and then saying ‘how can we apply sustainability within our solution?’ is the thinking I would encourage.

Sustainability gives you this opportunity to communicate more to your customers. You're communicating. both your values and the decision making that you're doing. Each little decision when you're shipping to them like do you tell them that it's a carbon neutral shipping or do you give them options or just present the carbon savings to them so they can be a part of that solution.

When they receive that package, are they opening it and it's covered with layers of bubble wrap when it's a sustainable product and those values are misaligned. If that instead had shredded paper and other materials this is one level of reinforcing the message of ‘hey, this business gets me, they're here to help me and I'd love to support them’. That’s a great opportunity for building brand loyalty.

Then to get a little existential about it, I would say the biggest thing for sustainability that you can do is to take that lens, think about what are the challenges and opportunities and apply that to the core of what you do. With Sendle, the core of what we do addresses a small piece of the climate crisis and small piece of inequity.

Within the services or products that you offer, how could your business help address some pressing issue. Not just a problem in your customers’ lives - absolutely do that, that matters - but there's opportunity for any product or service to touch into what we really need collectively as humans.

I’m seeing this picture of retailers, and particularly eCommerce retailers, being in a unique position to actually have a big impact simply because they can partner with these different organisations that prioritise sustainability. If they're choosing a partner like Sendle they can help to build this chain of sustainability.

Exactly, and think about that with your banking partner, or your marketing partner with each kind of choice that you're already making to support your business, there's options there. What's really exciting is the world of better business has grown to the point where there are products and services that are basically just better products and services to support you.

I think you'll even start to see customers prioritising organisations that have that network as well. Sure it's important for you as a retailer, but I think even customers will be looking for those network effects.

Yes and before I joined Sendle, I was at B Lab, the nonprofit that certifies B Corporations, and that was a big part of my interest in working at Sendle. After working in the community for quite a while, I got to see those network effects just playing out constantly with businesses getting together to innovate on an issue and just straight up helping each other in ways that go against this zero-sum competitive mindset and other outdated business practices.

What’s your advice for retailers, who want to make those moves but avoid just greenwashing?

I think the big thing to avoid greenwashing is to be very specific. If there are claims that you're making, tell that detailed story about it. Shoot a video that shows everything about your packaging and where you source it, because people are awesome and they're interested in the details. That's where you can avoid making these umbrella statements that don't quite capture where you're exactly at right now.

For people starting their businesses, sometimes I meet people with really big ambitions, so they should be honest about where they’re at now. For example, on the side I have a flower business and where we’re at now is we have to source from wholesalers. Those aren't the most sustainable flowers.

Someday, I would love to have a direct partnership with a farm. So we’re being honest by saying we source from wholesalers and we can't guarantee all of these specific features of our flowers, but we can say what we want to work towards in the future.

It’s similar to Sendle around how we're proud to be carbon neutral today, but we're working towards Net Zero. Being honest about where you are today, but also where you’re trying to get to, I think, is one of the biggest pieces.

This stuff is complicated. We’ve mentioned B Corps, there are certifications that are intentionally designed to kind of cut through what some of the common greenwashing claims are. Whatever certifications are most material to your business, you should seek out those. Or when you're purchasing something for your business, let’s say it’s packaging, look into what sustainability certifications would be most relevant for that type of packaging and rely on those.

I think everyone's susceptible to the LinkedIn imposter syndrome, so I think my key takeaway would be. just make those small changes incrementally. Even one small supplier switch or even just a packaging choice can have a huge impact and it doesn’t need to be all done at once.

Stay tuned for our next interview

Veena’s insights into the way Sendle approaches sustainability challenges in the shipping industry are really helpful, as they emphasise the steps businesses can take to start on this journey themselves. As we talked about in our chat, the more businesses prioritise sustainability, the more likely we are to build a network where we’re all working towards the same outcomes.

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David Renwick

David Renwick

David is Starshipit's Product Marketing Lead. When he's not whipping up a fresh new product update or chatting to customers for an exciting case study, you'll typically find him scoping out coffee spots and talking about what's on at the movies. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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