Centralized Ordering for Decentralized Supply: The Bioregional Charcoal Company

Yesterday we posted on the ultra-efficient paper recycling initiative known as The Laundry which was founded by the London-based Bioregional Development Group (whose founders we've interviewed here). But The Laundry is just one example of how Bioregional take a particular industry or process, and completely remodel it to make best use of local supply chains. The Bioregional Charcoal Company is another such initiative.

Much of the charcoal that is used in the UK is imported from Asia, and is often produced from clear-cur rainforest woods. It may also be treated with harsh chemicals and the burn quality is often inferior compared to its traditionally-produced British counterparts. Meanwhile coppice woodland in Britain lies neglected, or is simply coppiced for conservation value, with the wood that is produced becoming an unwanted by-product. Traditional charcoal burners just can't compete with imports or make use of the economies of scale necessary to deal with major retail outlets. At least that was the case until the Bioregional Development Group got involved. By setting up a network of small-scale producers with standardized brand packaging, and a centralized ordering line, the group enabled major chains like B&Q; and Asda (Wal Mart's UK subsidiary) to order local charcoal for each of their stores from one central number, from which the Bioregional Charcoal Company then contacts the nearest producer to the store in question to fulfill the order. This system cuts out a huge amount of mileage, and emissions, for each bag of charcoal delivered — the company estimates that CO2 emissions associated with transport are reduced by as much as 85%. It also revives a traditional, sustainable industry that has huge conservation value:

"Nationally, targets for coppice restoration have been set by organisations such as English Nature for wildlife and conservation benefits. The target for England is to return around 70,000 hectares to active coppice management, but without a market for this harvested wood, it is unlikely that any significant progress towards this target can be made. However if the UK became self sufficient in its charcoal production, this would contribute 60% of this target."

Of course, the potential of centralized ordering systems for decentralized production goes way beyond charcoal. Local producers are often squeezed out of the supply chain, not because it makes sense to truck tomatoes half way round the country, but because retailers lack the logistical capabilities to manage 100s of different accounts for each of their stores. Presumably networks such as this could be set up for producers of all sorts of commodities, cutting out a huge amount of unnecessary truck journeys in the process. Of course, standardization of product quality is another issue, and it may be easier to get similar looking, and performing, charcoal from different regions than it would be to grow similar carrots. Nevertheless, it is an intriguing concept with great possibilities. ::The Bioregional Charcoal Company:: via The Bioregional Development Group::

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