Why is it important?

The nature of humanitarian interventions requires rapid response and the movement of large amounts of cargo. This requires large amounts of energy which is usually derived from fossil fuels, creating greenhouse gas emissions and leading to increase climatic pressure. Ironically, the change in environment is viewed as one of the major pressures for future aid responses. It is therefore imperative that the logistics of these responses do not contribute to the cause any more than is needed.

Environmental Impact

Climate Change

The main source of energy for logistical operations is hydrocarbon fuels. This leads to greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, keeping stockpiles of goods in warehouses requires climatic controls (heating, cooling, humidity, etc) to ensure that they don’t deteriorate before they are needed, further consuming energy.

more climate change info
Greenhouse gas emissions

A greenhouse gas is a gas in an atmosphere that absorbs and emits radiation within the thermal infrared range. This process is the fundamental cause of the greenhouse effect which maintains the stable temperature of the Earth.

Since the Industrial Revolution there has been a 40% increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which is believed to be contributing to a change in the Earth’s climatic systems. Changes in this system is increasing the vulnerability of many populations.

Solid Waste management

Food and non-food items distributed by humanitarian aid agencies are packaged for transport. This packaging then becomes solid waste once the items have been consumed and can have a substantial impact on the local environment.

more Solid Waste Management info
Solid waste management

Waste management is the collection, transport, processing or disposal, managing and monitoring of waste materials.

There are two streams of waste management relevant to humanitarian operations. The disaster waste stream which is produced by the disaster and the normal waste stream which is produced by the activities of a population. Disregarding the management of waste streams increases the risk of spreading disease and poses significant public health risks; as well as logistic challenges due to blocked transport links.

Reduction in biodiversity

Plastic packaging does not biodegrade. If not managed properly this can present significant risks for land and aquatic life forms which could consume the materials and die. This would increase pressure on already pressurised food stocks and may lead to conflicts with local populations or government.

more Reduction in Biodiversity info
Forest/woodland management

Forest management is a branch of forestry concerned with the overall administrative, economic, legal and social aspects and with the essentially scientific and technical aspects, especially silviculture, protection, and forest regulation. This includes management for aesthetics, fish, recreation, urban values, water, wilderness, wildlife, wood products, forest genetic resources and other forest resource values.

Forest management is essential to maintaining the ecological sustainability of an area. This has impacts on drainage and flooding, fuel wood availability, employment for local populations, availability of wild food and availability of fish stocks. Mismanagement can also have a significant negative impact on the acceptance of local populations and government to the humanitarian operations.

Soil, water & air pollution

All NFIs must be manufactured somewhere. More often than not this ‘somewhere’ is in the global south where environmental and employment regulations may not be enforced as strictly as in the agency’s home nation. This can lead to pollution in the country of manufacture.

more Soil, Water & Air Pollution info
Air Pollution

Air pollution is the introduction into the atmosphere of chemicals, particulates, or biological materials that cause discomfort, disease, or death to humans, damage other living organisms such as food crops, or damage the natural environment or built environment.

Household air pollution can have a significant impact on the a population’s respiratory health.

Mitigation strategies

Responsible warehousing
There are three areas where warehousing has an environmental impact:
  1. Energy required to control the internal climate – heat, cool, condition air, etc;
  2. Disposal of waste from warehouses; and
  3. Emissions due to transport to the warehouse.
The following could be considered to reduce the environmental impact of warehouses:
  • reduce amount of materials in warehouse and therefore size of warehouse needed will reduce the energy needed;
  • improve insulation or passive heating/cooling;
  • consider using renewable sources (solar, wind, hydro) of electricity generation;
  • investigate strategies to use local markets rather than warehoused goods;
  • investigate waste reduction strategies; and
  • consider distance between warehouses and places at most risk to minimise transport needs.

Minimising transport and storage reduces energy demands which will reduce costs.

Supporting local markets increases economic development and provides employment.

Waste prevention in warehouses

Waste in warehouses increases the need for landfill or the pressure on domestic waste management systems.

There are a number of ways to reduce waste in warehouses such as:

  • act according to “first in – first out” principle – to reduce time in stock and risk of perishing;
  • order perishable goods according to needs;
  • stock according to expiry date; and
  • maintain a goods register.

Packaging waste can be reduced by:

  • using large portions which are split on delivery;
  • prefer re-usable tertiary and secondary packaging; and
  • use inverse retail chain.
Poor quality of transport infrastructure

Drivers are forced to drive longer distances if roads have become impassable, and poor road surfaces can slow down transport. This increases the time in transport and the emissions due to it.

Invest in improving infrastructure, maintenance training and driver training. This can benefit the local population by creating employment.

Transporting materials
Greenhouse gas emissions due to transport are directly proportional to the distance that goods need to be transported. Therefore minimising transport distances can have a beneficial impact on both the environment and budgets.

Furthermore, transport infrastructure has local environmental impacts such as:

  • HGV transportation can create noise, air pollution and soil erosion;
  • incorrect road construction can damage habitats and natural drainage; and
  • fuel needed for vehicles is a potential environmental risk if spilled.
Environmental impact of suppliers
Production of materials and NFIs can produce pollutants and Green House Gases. If these are not managed appropriately they can have a significant environmental impact. This is especially pertinent if manufacturing produces pollutants which directly contaminate water and land in the country of manufacture due to unenforced environmental legislation.

Support local suppliers can reduce transport demands and therefore costs. This could include:

  • improving manufacturing efficiencies;
  • working to meet relevant environmental regulations; and
  • improving working conditions in manufacturing – i.e. impact on environmental health.

Where local suppliers are not available or appropriate, assess global suppliers based on their environmental merit and consider life-cycle assessment:

  • consider environmental regulations of countries where manufacturing is taking place; and
  • investigate improved fleet efficiency in the logistics chain
  • consider creating a ‘Greenhouse gas inventory’; and
  • investigate ‘offsetting’ of Carbon emissions.

Working with suppliers to improve efficiencies can reduce costs and mitigating the environmental impact of logistics will reduce the organisation’s contribution to future humanitarian challenges due to environmental pollution.

Additional Resources

The logistics cluster – guide to Green Logistics.

The International Standards Organisation – ISO 14000 international standards for environmental management.

American Red Cross and WWF – Green Recovery and Reconstruction Training Toolkit – Module 5, Green Guide to Materials and the Supply Chain.

United Nations Environment Programme & Groupe URD – Module 8: Humanitarian logistics and the environment.

United Nations Environment Programme & TNT – Toolkit for Clean Fleet Strategy Development.

USAID – the environment in partner programmes.

UNEP’s Mainstreaming the environment into humanitarian action – logistics section.

United Nations Environment Programme & TNT – Toolkit for Clean Fleet Strategy Development.

Logistics Cluster – Green Logistics

Inter-University collaboration – Green Logistics.

There are a number of books and tools related to sustainable event management which may be useful when planning sustainable logistics.


BSI – Sustainable event management guidelines

Practical Action’s Practical Answers:

Inter-University collaboration – Green Logistics

Inter-University collaboration – Reverse Logistics

Reverse Logistics Association – Reverse Logistics

World Food Programme – top 10 green shipping trends and technologies

UNEP – Logistics resources

USAID – green procurement

UNEP – Cleaner motorcycles guide

UNEP – efficient driving advice