November 2002 | Commentary | Checking In

Are You a Logistics Laggard?

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Logisticians get saddled with lots of responsibility when things go wrong—the shipment is late, the shipment is lost, the carrier filed Chapter 11, the ports are closed. Now we learn that we are not practicing "socially responsible logistics." Talk about piling on!

"The logistics discipline appears to be more of a laggard with respect to social responsibility." That's according to a stimulating and well-done article Socially Responsible Logistics: An Exploratory Study* by Paul Murphy, professor of business logistics, John Carroll University and Richard Poist, professor of transportation and logistics, Iowa State University.

Hold on now, don't get your crossdocks in a knot. The authors may have engaged in a little hyperbole to entice readers. It worked on me, but I reject the "laggard" notion on three grounds.

First, the study's small sampling—43 responses—makes it tough to draw valid conclusions. Murphy and Poist agree.

Second, the study's own findings show a high level of awareness of "social responsibility" in the logistics function. The authors also agree that logistics departments do not make corporate policy, social or otherwise. They execute it. You can't lag if you don't set policy.

Third, what is the definition of "social responsibility?" Murphy and Poist cobble together 20 elements from others, apparently social activists. My experience with activists of any stripe is that they usually lump more acceptable issues in with their core activist ones to make the agenda more appealing to the mainstream, in this case logisticians.

Here's what I mean. Murphy and Poist infer that social concerns are usually at odds with "purely economic considerations such as profits and maximizing shareholder wealth." Using that inference, I call into question at least 15 of their 20 defined "social responsibility" issues, including "ethical conduct, safe movement and storage of products, employee health and safety, satisfaction with work, education, reuse and proper disposal for protective packaging materials, and reverse logistics."

These seven and the eight others are either simple business ethics and/or are driven by profit motives. Ethical conduct equals trusting customers. Safe movements equal low insurance and legal costs. Happy, healthy, educated employees equal satisfied customers. Reverse logistics equals money. And so on.

Are activists trying to mainstream the logistics social responsibility issue by lumping "mainstream" business concerns into their definition of social responsibility? Aren't most logisticians in favor of any or all those issues, however you classify them?

Granted, the study did include what I would term "hardcore" social responsibility issues such as urban development, handicapped access, and consumer rights, where it is tough to make a direct correlation to company profits. If the authors want a true measure of the acceptance and practice of social responsibility in logistics, they should study those core activist issues.

My hope is that Murphy and Poist open a dialog on logistics social responsibility and that future studies measure more respondents on true social responsibility issues, and not lump in standard business ethics and/or practices that are driven by profit motives.

*published in The American Society of Transportation & Logistics Transportation Journal, (Vol. 41/No. 4)

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