It is fair to say that the environment is a ‘hot button’ issue for many companies. Customers care more than ever about environmental issues and big companies are starting to respond. In the consumer goods sector, Unilever has recently committed to using only recyclable packing by 2025. Drinks giant Barcadi has made similar changes, updating their packaging from traditional glass to more recyclable and lighter PET plastics.

However, whilst these moves towards being more environmentally friendly certainly reflects customer desire, being kind to the environment in the supply chain and field services has traditionally been more difficult. Moving goods creates emissions and the types of vehicles used in large supply chains are often the worst polluters. Heavy goods vehicles and vans produce on average 7% of the UK’s overall carbon emissions. Despite this supply chain companies are starting to make the move towards environmental efficiency, with some larger companies even committing to running a zero-emissions supply chain in the future.

This is a bold aim and sets the benchmark for other companies to follow suit. The question is, is it even possible? What can field service companies be doing to reduce their environmental impact, and will they ever be able to operate with zero-emissions?

Carbon offsetting

Carbon offsetting has become increasingly popular over the last 10 years and is often a key component of zero-emissions polices. Carbon offsetting schemes work, not by limiting the amount of carbon created at the source, but offsetting it later by planting additional trees or rolling out green technologies. On the face of it, these schemes are a positive way of reducing emissions. It doesn’t require a deep institutional change and if enough offsetting is done, companies can effectively reduce their emissions to zero. However, there are also some questions about how useful these schemes really are.

Many carbon offsetting schemes have moved away from planting trees on the basis that the impact in the short term is very limited. These schemes are also criticised for not enacting any positive environmental change because they have no impact on the amount of emissions a company creates.

Writer and environmental activist George Monbiot famously compared carbon offsetting to pushing food around a plate to create the impression you have eaten. Carbon offsetting schemes are certainly better than doing nothing, but they also don’t offer a definitive answer.

Final mile by bike

If carbon offsetting isn’t the answer, perhaps methods of reducing emissions caused by heavy goods vehicles and vans are? In the fight against climate change, new technologies are often cited as the key weapon, but older technologies like the bicycle could end up making a big difference. Final mile bicycle delivery services are increasingly popular and large freight forwarders are even starting to add it to their portfolio. Furthermore, each bicycle delivery can replace two standard delivery vehicles which saves over 16 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, bicycles are limited in their range. Delivery bikes have an effective range of anywhere between 10 to 50 kilometres depending on a variety of factors (rider fitness, load weight, number of hill etc.). This limits their use to city centres and means in practice a substantial number of riders would be needed to completely replace vans. However, for companies that already struggle with city centre operations, this is a novel solution that may be very beneficial.

Job scheduling software

Away from cities, deliveries still require large vehicles, so to cut down on emissions it is a good idea to try and limit mileage. Looking at efficient means of job scheduling is one way of doing so. Traditionally, job scheduling is manual and was often left to the driver. However, as customer expectations have grown, software that can schedule jobs has become more prevalent. These types of software can be very beneficial in working out the fastest route, but also the most environmentally friendly one. Some will even take into account traffic patterns and predict where drivers are most likely to get stuck.

Depending on the size of a company, the carbon reductions in using the most economical route can be significant. The Co-operative (supermarkets) managed to save 5,000 tonnes of carbon emissions a year by using scheduling software that cut their delivery miles down by 5%.


None of the solutions above are an instant fix but they do offer marginal improvements. The problem of emissions in the supply chain has no easy answer and it remains to be seen if a zero-emissions supply chain is possible. Future technologies like electric lorries may hold the answer. In the meantime, it is a good idea to work on reducing emissions and gradually move toward a more sustainable operation.

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