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Decarbonization in the supply chain: A strategic imperative for top management

Studies show: Up to 80 percent of a company's total emissions can come from its supply chain. Decarbonizing the supply chain therefore offers enormous potential for reducing the carbon footprint. This article highlights the challenges and opportunities of supply chain decarbonization and shows practical approaches on how companies can reduce their emissions along the entire value chain.

Thomas Heine, Chefredakteur Magazin für einen nachhaltigen Einkauf

SDG media GmbH

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time and companies have a crucial role to play in tackling this crisis. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is no longer just an option, but an urgent necessity. Companies are under increasing pressure to reduce their environmental footprint - both from regulatory requirements such as the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) and from the growing expectations of customers, consumers and investors. A key area for effective emissions reductions lies in the supply chain.

In order to exploit this potential, companies must develop customized strategies. The sources of emissions and opportunities for reduction vary greatly depending on the industry, product and supplier structure. A precise analysis of the supply chain, the identification of hotspots and the development of specific measures are crucial for successful decarbonization.



This article highlights two central aspects of decarbonization. Firstly, the comprehensive decarbonization of a company as a whole is presented using the example of Steinbeis Papier GmbH. It shows how the company is reducing its greenhouse gas emissions through targeted measures in the areas of energy consumption, production, logistics and product design, thereby making a significant contribution to climate protection. This case study illustrates how a company can successfully reduce its emissions through innovative approaches and a deep-rooted commitment to sustainability.

Secondly, the method of calculating the product carbon footprint (PCF) at Dr. Schnell GmbH & Co. KGaA is described in detail. This method enables the precise recording of carbon emissions generated throughout the entire life cycle of a product. By analyzing and optimizing emissions along the value chain, companies can take targeted measures to reduce their carbon footprint. This case study shows how the implementation of digital tools and specific procedures for recording the PCF can lead to a significant reduction in emissions.

Decarbonization in purchasing practice

In order to reduce the CO2e footprint in the supply chain, you first need to know it precisely. A well-founded database is essential in order to develop and implement effective measures on this basis. The process follows the pattern "understand, measure, decarbonize, integrate and control".

At Steinbeis Papier, the initial focus for reducing CO2 emissions was on optimizing the distribution of goods. Several key areas were identified:

  • Internal logistics: improvement of transfers and storage processes
  • Transport transparency: detailed recording and analysis of all transport processes
  • Increased efficiency: minimization of empty runs
  • Innovative tenders: Promoting fair competition through intelligent award procedures
  • Multimodal logistics: use of different means of transportation, introduction of round trips and strategic placement of distribution warehouses
  • Customer cooperation: incentives for the acceptance of fully loaded trucks

These measures are aimed at optimizing logistics processes and thus significantly reducing the CO2 footprint in the supply chain.

In a second step, Steinbeis Papier dedicated itself to the analysis and optimization of packaging in order to exploit both economic and ecological potential. The focus was on the following core areas:

  • Packaging reduction: Minimizing the use of materials without compromising on quality
  • Material innovation: research and use of more environmentally friendly alternatives
  • Plastic-free: development of packaging solutions without plastics
  • Wood reduction: reducing the proportion of wood in packaging
  • Innovation culture: critically questioning established practices and promoting creative solutions
  • Supplier involvement: organization of workshops for the joint development of sustainable packaging concepts
  • Through this targeted approach, Steinbeis Papier aims to significantly improve the environmental balance of its packaging without losing sight of the economic aspects.

In a third step, Steinbeis Papier analyzed the sustainability strategy for in-house waste disposal. The following aspects were brought into focus:

  • In-house recycling management: implementation and optimization of internal recycling processes
  • Take-back systems: introduction of systems such as IBC containers for reuse
  • Waste separation: improving waste separation through clear container labeling
  • Waste avoidance: Use of refill systems, for example for printer cartridges
  • Recycling of residual materials: efficient use of residual materials, for example through PFR (paper fiber recycling)
  • Packaging avoidance: Reduction of packaging material wherever possible

These measures are aimed at making in-house waste disposal more sustainable and further reducing the company's ecological footprint.
Digital support is invaluable

Digital approaches are invaluable when it comes to analyzing and reducing CO2 emissions. They enable both precise data collection and the optimization of operational processes. New technologies promote process digitization, data-driven business decisions and the development of innovative digital business models. Carbon accounting applications are a central IT solution for calculating the product footprint. These tools make it possible to project the climate impact along the supply chain by accessing relevant data. This enables companies to accurately record the emissions of their products and services and take targeted measures to reduce them.

Questioning established processes and involving both suppliers and colleagues is crucial for a sustainable supply chain. The following aspects play a central role at Steinbeis Papier:

  • Active supplier management and sustainable product group strategies:
    Setting, measuring and rewarding sustainability targets.
  • Product certification, data transparency and digitalization:
    Ensuring transparency and traceability along the supply chain.
  • Carbon footprint (PCF) online tools:
    These enable a detailed and comprehensive determination of greenhouse gas emissions at transaction level at a reasonable internal cost.
  • Validation by independent third parties:
    Creates the greatest possible trust among customers and interested parties such as authorities and NGOs.
  • Data for reporting on the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD):
    The data collected makes an important contribution to fulfilling the reporting obligations under the CSRD.

These measures help to effectively implement a company's sustainability strategy and significantly reduce CO2 emissions in the supply chain.

Creating a product carbon footprint as a basis for product innovations and market requirements

More and more companies are making quantitative CO2 reduction commitments - but if buyers want to contribute to achieving these CO2 reduction targets, they first need to know the greenhouse gas footprint of the goods they are buying. Companies are receiving more and more inquiries from customers about the CO2 emissions of the products they purchase. But how can the necessary product carbon footprint be determined?

The Product Carbon Footprint (PCF) calculation is relevant for companies if they want to understand the emissions of the products they manufacture, how product design or individual ingredients and raw materials affect emissions and how specific reduction targets are to be set. The PCF is used to determine the quantities of greenhouse gases emitted in a product system and convert them into CO2 equivalents in order to quantify the potential contribution of this product to global warming.

The actual aim of a PCF calculation is not to know the level of CO2 emissions, but to identify optimization and savings potential within the composition of the cleaning agent.

In order to be able to provide a PCF for each sales item, Dr. Schnell, a cleaning agent manufacturer, carried out the CO2 binning of all raw materials used and all raw materials from renewable sources (approx. 600 in total) and all containers and labels (approx. 2,000) to be considered for possible replacement in-house by the company's own research and development department (R&D).

In order to use a valid data basis, corresponding databases and studies were used, which are automatically accessed by specially developed software and thus always kept up to date. The calculated data was then implemented in the R&D recipe management software and in the ERP software.

This means that the carbon footprint of each sales item can be created automatically and updated on a daily basis, and alternative raw materials or new recipes can be examined for their actual impact on the environment at the click of a mouse.

In the course of calculating the carbon footprint, Dr. Schnell has already achieved an annual saving of 2 million kg of CO2 through optimization in the supply chain and minimal recipe adjustments, which would not have been noticed without this examination of greenhouse gas emissions.

In the course of calculating the carbon footprint, Dr. Schnell has already achieved an annual saving of 2 million kg of CO2 through optimization in the supply chain and minimal recipe adjustments, which would not have been noticed without this examination of greenhouse gas emissions.

The calculation took into account the entire product life cycle according to the cradle-to-grave approach - manufacture of the individual components, transport, production at the Dr. Schnell plant and disposal or recycling - and the entire PCF balance was carried out in accordance with ISO 14067 "Carbon footprint of products - Requirements and guidelines for quantification" and successfully certified by the company GUTcert, so that comparability with other cleaning agents that have been balanced according to this standard is ensured.

It has been shown that even a medium-sized company can calculate valid and independently certified PCFs itself with the data and resources already available today - you just have to get started.

The PCF calculation has made it possible to create an ideal climate range that has been optimized in terms of the proportion of sustainable raw materials and lower CO2 emissions. Customers can have their purchased range adjusted accordingly and thus save up to 50 percent of actual CO2 emissions.


Decarbonizing the supply chain is proving to be a strategic imperative for the top management of modern companies. The examples in this article illustrate that decarbonizing the supply chain is much more than a compliance task. It offers opportunities for cost savings, innovation and competitive advantage. Companies that take these aspects into account can not only achieve their climate targets, but also position themselves as pioneers in their industries. Decarbonizing the supply chain is therefore not only an ecological necessity, but also a decisive factor for long-term business success and resilience in a changing economic world.