Forward in Reverse

In the waning days of the War Between the States, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman confronted a crisis of discernible sorts. With the tides having irreversibly swept in the direction of the North, “Uncle Billy” confronted the task of keeping vital provisions flowing to his wearied Yankee troops while determining what to do about train cars stocked with ammunition no longer needed.

Spring rains swelled the Neuse River outside Raleigh, N.C., as Sherman’s men marched northward to link up with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Something had to give. Sherman ordered the ammunition dumped on the southern side of the Neuse north of Raleigh and the food shipped on.

Reverse logistics was born.

Over the course of the following century, the concept would scarcely be refined or even defined.

Roughly 30 years after Sherman’s decision to leave behind the bullets and send on the grub, Montgomery Ward began offering 100-percent refunds to dissastisfied customers who returned products purchased at the store.

That introduced another line of after-market logistics.

Short on materials while combatting the Axis powers in World War II, the U.S. began shipping metal, rubber and other essentials home so that they could be put back into use.

Remanufacturing was born.

By the end of the war, more than 77 million square feet of space in U.S. warehouses was occupied with excess materials, leaving officials with a quandary similar to Sherman’s, only exponentially larger.

However critical such innovations were to securing victory in the Great War, the idea of setting up supply chains for both the delivery of goods and the return of materials remained largely on the commercial periphery.

By 1998, studies were being conducted simultaneously by the military and private sector.

Today, reverse logistics is a fundamental facet of many shipping operations, providing not only for recapturing value on materials but also for sustainability initiatives.

“Reverse logistics allows you to maximize value on everything you do,” said Reo B. Hatfield, president of logistics operations at Reo Logistics. “When you have an efficient reverse supply chain, it can allow you to get the most out of the material you use, which is both good for  the environment and good financially for the company.”

And that, in an era when economic uncertainty has become the norm, can be the difference between finishing in the red and running in the black.