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Consumerist society fuels rising oil prices

The time has come to question our 'need' for excess By Chris Savage, course leader for Transport & Logistics at the University of Huddersfield and Director of various research projects in the Transport & Logistics Research Unit.

For some time it has been impossible to pick up a newspaper without reading about the soaring price of fuel. The increase has been truly dramatic due to a quadrupling of the cost of a barrel of oil since 2004. It is something that we all feel because of the impact that it has on our everyday lives.

What may be less obvious is that this same price increase has also been a major shock to the global supply chains that support commerce and bring most of the low cost products to the high street. Worryingly, the impact of the price hike is still working its way through those systems.
Worse still, as Martin Christopher noted in a recent article; high oil prices are here to stay and more significant price rises are inevitable. Furthermore, we may be approaching, or have already passed, 'peak oil'; the moment when oil production enters a permanent decline. At the same time world demand continues to increase, so the gap between demand and supply will get bigger by the day and there is little realistic chance of it being filled with alternative energy sources for many years to come. This is very worrying for logistics and supply chain managers, as many of the strategic decisions taken in the past, such as where to manufacture or import raw materials from or how to distribute finished goods may not look so attractive in the light of limited fuel availability, its spiralling cost and concerns about our carbon footprint. Previous emphasis has been mainly on cutting costs to bring cheap goods to the high-street regardless of the consequences but there is a very real need to develop supply chains that use less fossil fuel.

Researchers do work on these areas but they seldom receive much acclaim as they are not considered fashionable.

At Huddersfield, programmes aimed at saving fuel and carbon emissions have included: fuel saving through safe and fuel efficient driving and developing vehicle scheduling techniques that reduce the impact of congestion. Many other academic institutions are also working on projects aimed at improving the sustainability of supply chains and logistics systems. Possibly the present fuel crisis may help some of these less trendy areas of logistics research gain support, but will it change the views of purse holders and decision makers? Whilst there are profits to be made the latter seems less likely.

One could ask if a more fundamental approach questioning the actual need for many of the items that these supply chains bring us. Do we need year-round Kiwifruit? Can we live quite happily without container loads of plastic toys to be “given away” in McDonalds? Should our children be persuaded that durable items such as mobile telephones or bicycles are fashion accessories that must be changed with the seasons?
So, what can we do at a personal level? Well, being a “post-war baby-boomer” I don't need most of the cheap imports – I have got to grips with CDs/DVDs, but don't want an MP3 player and my clothes are bought for function rather than fashion. I must admit to a continuing love affair with my small British built sports car, so I do use some petrol but pay homage to sustainability by travelling by bus as often as possible. Being a pragmatist, I also keep my cycle clips polished, just in case the oil finally does run out and I have to take the advice of Norman Tebbit to “Get on Yer Bike!”.

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