Sustainable logistics are key to a sustainable future

Logistics is currently one of the bottlenecks to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Through careful planning, cooperation among stakeholders and application of emerging technologies, logistics can support the world toward a better, more sustainable future.

The demands of modern society on logistics

Logistics is the foundation of global, regional and local supply chains and is key to a well-functioning, modern society. Without the accurate and efficient flow of goods, stores would not receive food, petrol stations would not receive fuel and your friend would not receive that last minute gift you purchased from Amazon. However, logistics supply chain activities, while bringing great economic benefit, have unintended negative effects such as road freight’s contribution to global emissions.

Indeed, established logistics paradigms (customer-oriented, ‘just-in-time,’ etc.) are no longer sufficient for the logistics sector to appropriately plan and implement their activities and fulfill customer demands. Not only does the logistics sector need to cope with the challenges that come with rising demand for home deliveries, proliferation of small-sized deliveries and personalization in production and consumption, the sector needs to re-think and evolve its practices in order achieve progress towards building a better, more sustainable tomorrow.

The world on the road to sustainability

There are three main pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental and social [1] and logistics can impact all three in an unsustainable manner [2] (Figure 1). Some of the most obvious unsustainable effects, visible for everyone, are high goods and services prices, air pollutant emissions, the use of non-renewable resources (fossil fuels), waste generation, increased traffic congestion, noise and unaesthetic environments.

To address global sustainability issues, the United Nations defined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. In particular, SDG 9: Industry, innovation, and infrastructure, SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities, SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production, SDG 13: Climate action, SDG 14: Life below water and SDG 15: Life on land are relevant to the logistics sector given the role of the sector in enabling progress towards these SDGs .

Figure 1. Unsustainable effects of inefficient logistics [2]

Logistics as an important contributor to achieving sustainability goals

In logistic supply chains, the dominant role of road transportation in performing logistics activities compared to other transportation modes (sea, rail, inland waterway, air) contributes to many of the unsustainable effects discussed. The transportation sector is the second largest contributor to air pollution in the European Union (the largest being the energy sector) and the only one whose emissions are in constant growth accounting for 25% of global CO2 emissions. Road transportation contributes to 72% of those emissions [3], with heavy-duty delivery vehicles causing 30% of these emissions [4]. In the EU, road transportation is responsible for 95% of all transport-caused CO2 emissions. Furthermore, road freight vehicles were involved in 4.9% of all traffic accidents on EU roads and 14.2% of fatal traffic accidents in 2019 [5].

This does not mean that logistics activities should be restricted or banned but rather highlights the importance of rethinking current approaches and planning efficient, sustainable logistics systems. For example, the replacement of road transportation (as much as possible) by other modes such as rail and inland waterway (river) where it already exists .*

Creative solutions to address the sustainability challenge

A broad body of literature in recent years addresses the challenges of transforming to sustainable logistics, where emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles, advanced robotics, artificial intelligence and blockchain stand out as elements that are vital to enabling sustainable logistics systems . The foundation of sustainable logistics systems should be based on replacing road transportation with more sustainable transportation modes (especially rail and inland waterway transportation). The literature advocates that traditional approaches in logistics planning must be abandoned in order to give space for creative yet sustainable way of finding logistics solutions that satisfy all stakeholders : logistics providers, users of logistics services, local and regional authorities and of course us – the residents [6,7].

The focus of planning sustainable logistics systems should be on (larger) regional and (smaller) local levels [2] (Figure 2). Regional logistics planning should provide sustainable solutions for intercontinental and regional goods flow. At the local level, the focus should be on the last phase of goods delivery – to the end customer (us, retail stores, markets, etc .).

Intermodal transportation – the movement of goods in containers by using two or more different modes of transportation successively – plays the lead role in achieving sustainable logistics on the regional level. Its focus is in applying alternative transportation modes to reduce the participation of road transportation. On the local level, the main role is played by city logistics: the planning of sustainable logistics within urban areas that covers a wide set of goods flows and stakeholders.

Figure 2. Macro and micro-level sustainable logistics [2]

Rethinking current approaches to create a better tomorrow

The future of sustainable logistics lies in the planning, development and interlinking of intermodal transportation and city logistics systems. This requires rethinking current approaches in solving logistics problems, cooperation among stakeholders, development of appropriate infrastructure and the application of emerging technologies. This is not an easy process and requires considerable attention, dedication and partnership in order to make meaningful progress towards a more sustainable world for all.

At Clarivate™, sustainability is at the heart of everything we do. Read more about our commitment to driving sustainability worldwide and see highlights from our 2021 Clarivate Sustainability Report. For more insightful analysis from the Institute for Scientific Information(ISI)™ at Clarivate™, please see our recent reports.

*In the relevant literature in this domain, the most visible unsustainable effects of logistics come from the transportation sector.


[1]Elkington, J. 1997. “Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of Twenty-first Century Business”. Capstone, Oxford, UK.

[2]Kovač, M. 2022. “Sustainable Logistics Systems Modelling”. The Faculty of Transport and Traffic Engineering, University of Belgrade, Belgrade, Serbia. Ph.D. Thesis.

[3]European Environment Agency. 2022. “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Transport in Europe”.

[4]Llano, C., Perez-Balsalobre, S., Perez-Garcia, J. 2018. “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Intra-National Freight Transport: Measurement and Scenarios for Greater Sustainability in Spain”. Sustainability, 10(7), 2467.

[5]European Commission. 2021. “Road Safety: European Commission Rewards Effective Initiatives and Publishes 2021 Figures on Road Fatalities”.

[6]Rai, H.B., Verlinde, S., Macharis, C. 2019. “City Logistics in an Omnichannel Environment. The Case of Brussels”. Case Studies on Transport Policy, 7(2), 310-317.

[7]Szmelter-Jarosz, A., Rzesny-Cieplinska, J. 2019. “Priorities of Urban Transport System Stakeholders According to Crowd Logistics Solutions in City Areas. A Sustainability Perspective”. Sustainability, 12(1), 317.