Playing Catch Up: How Warehouses Are Going Green

by Christopher Myrick

Sustainable warehousing aims to eliminate or mitigate adverse environment­al impacts of operations by implementing green practices and technologies. While there may be implementation costs, industry sources and sustainability advo­cates say sustainable warehousing can benefit businesses by reducing costs, enhancing productivity and improving customer loyalty. While there are innovations that can help sustainability, such as automation in heat and lighting, says Judy Wall, president of East Port Properties, a Halifax-based firm that specializes in green properties in Atlantic Canada, many of these innovations that warehouses can apply have already been used in commercial and residential sectors for years and that are off-the-shelf solu­tions that the industry can adopt to catch up. “Some upgrades are very simple and obvious but haven’t been applying these to warehouses the way we would apply it to our houses. to a resi­dence, or an office?”, says Wall.

Judy Wall, President of East Port Properties

“When approaching warehouses my first thought was that we have all these good technological advances, but we’re not using them on our industrial side.” Wall says warehouses have regrettably been behind the curve on reducing waste and improving employee conditions, and that adopting sustainable practices can cut waste and improve staff morale. “When I started managing warehouses, I saw the most deplorable conditions. They were dark. Whoever worked in there never saw the outdoors unless they opened this huge overhead door,” Wall says. “The lights were always half burnt out. The heat may or may not be running, and if it was running, it was still running in July! It was this constant waste.” Many of these issues can be solved with systems that are commonplace in offices and residences, such as better insulation, energy-efficient lighting and heating systems. However, we are also seeing many new innovations specific for warehousing as major industries adopt Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) standards and seek new technologies and solutions to cut waste throughout entire global supply chains.

East Port’s flagship warehouse development is the Wilkinson Project in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, a multi-tenant complex totalling approximately 300,000 square feet. The buildings feature a tightly insulated building, heat recovery ventilation and a central in-floor heating system supplied by air-to-water heat pumps with a peak-load natural gas boiler. One innovation of note is the use of ocean water for cooling, an adaptation borrowed from commercial buildings and nuclear submarines. Another element of ESG is to make warehouses more employee-friendly and healthy, says Wall. “When my team started working on how to make warehouses a better place to live the first thing we looked at – back in 2009 – was looking at getting daylight in there while making sure we don’t stop the warehouse from being functional.”

To do that, East Port sourced a proprietary window product, made in Sydney, Nova Scotia, that allows extra daylight into warehouse space through skylights and high-based windows above the loading docks. “If you walk into one of our warehouses, you don’t need to run on the lights to see,” Wall says. While ocean-cooled buildings and locally sourced ecological-tested windows helped create a best-in-class sustainable warehouse facility, new greenfield sustainable warehouses would be out of reach for many operators. There are many products and solutions available for warehouse operators of any size.

Jared Frederici, Consultant at The Poirier Group

“We’re seeing organizations at all sizes who are using AI (artificial intelligence) and machine-learning frameworks to connect these systems, especially LED lighting systems,” Jared Frederici, who advises warehouses as a consultant with Toronto’s The Poirier Group. “They’re starting to create energy management systems that connect these devices where AI tools automatically optimize settings for sustainability.” The warehouses Frederici advises range from small (5,000 square feet) to larger than a million square feet, and he says there are different solutions that have business cases associated with them. It is expected that sustainable warehousing will become more important for operators of all sizes due to regulatory market factors, says Frederici. “A lot of small to medium organizations now have access to some of these tools at a more reasonable price point. We’re starting to see organizations get more creative on their broader energy management systems, and an uptick in sustainable material handling equipment. And I think that electric forklifts, power jacks and other equipment is certainly starting to replace other types.”

“A lot of organizations are seeking to be net-neutral or carbon-neutral within a certain time frame,” says Pierre Taillefer, head of national sustainability and ESG leader for advisory firm BDO Canada, who says organizations are starting to seek warehouse and logistics operators that are certified as green. Analysts broadly agree that there can a be strong business case for adopting environmentally sustainable warehouses, as many waste-reducing advances can save money.

“It is getting more expensive to heat and cooling reduces your bottom line. It inherently makes your operation more expensive and anything you can do to reduce your expenses helps avoid costs,” says East Port’s Wall. “If you run a business and you look at all your expenses…having a more efficient facility reduces your expenses.” 

Pierre Taillefer, Head of National Sustainability and ESG Leader, BDO Canada

“A sustainable warehouse provides a lower cost and I think can be a better facility for users,” adds Wall. “Supply chain professionals want warehouses that work well, have good productivity, and have employees who want to stay there because it’s not cold and dark 24/7, it’s better for their business as well as for the climate.” While government regulations may be a factor prompting firms to adopt ESG guidelines for warehouses, BDO Canada’s Taillefer says governments are also offering incentives to improve performance and upgrade systems, offering carrots as well as sticks. “There are a number of green investment programs at both the federal level and provincial levels, and even at municipal levels, that I would highly recommend that warehouse operators get access to,” he adds. “There are also programs out there that provide funding or tax benefits for investments in greener equipment or more energy-efficient equipment. If you’re doing a retrofit to a building, there are programs available to help so that businesses have more effective and efficient fixed assets, specifically from a GHG [greenhouse gas] perspective.” Programs that Canadians warehouse operators can access include the Climate Action and Awareness Fund, which supports projects that encourage engagement and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Clean Water and Wastewater Fund, the Green Infrastructure Fund and the Clean Growth Hub. For municipal-level funding, warehouse operators can contact their local governments or associations to find out about the available programs and initiatives in their area.