Sustainability Lessons From India: Q&A With Environmental Consultant Trudy Heller

An American’s first impressions of India often include images of alternate approaches to trash management, intermittent electrical power supplies and issues of environmental sustainability.

In this interview with Trudy Heller, those approaches are seen from the perspective of Heller’s work designing products for environmental sustainability and providing training to executives in environmental management.

Heller is the president of Executive Education for the Environment, based in Swarthmore, Pa. She recently visited India to assist in setting up an environmental management training program at the new Indian Institute of Management in Shillong, the capital of the state of Meghalaya, Northeast India.

E-Commerce Times: What about your recent trip to India stays in your heart the most?

Trudy Heller:

In Shillong, I would leave the guest house each morning and walk out into a scene from a sustainable economy. In the driveway and walkways, four or five women were employed sweeping up debris that had fallen from the trees during the previous night’s rain. Each woman worked with a biodegradable sweeper made of broom grass, a locally grown agricultural product.

This tableau of a sustainable economy was striking to my Western senses. The system provided employment, used biodegradable, locally sourced products, and produced an excellent result — cleared walkways and driveways — without noise or air pollution disturbing the academic community.

At home in the United States, the problem of removing debris from driveways and walkways would be managed with an entirely different solution. A single worker equipped with a gasoline-powered tool would be hired to blow the debris off the pavement.

This solution would disturb the community with noise and air pollution, burn fossil fuel, emit carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — and provide employment for a single individual. With sustainability as the standard, it is easy to see which is the more “advanced” solution.

ECT: How are you using the word, “sustainability”?

Heller:

In his new book, Sustainability by Design, John Ehrenfeld suggests a definition for sustainability as “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.” Sustainability is, by this definition, a vision and a mindset. In my trip to India, sustainability became a standard against which I measured practices that were new to me.

Rather than seeing the West as the standard of environmentally sustainable practices and India as an emerging economy that is trying to catch up, I saw opportunities for both East and West to learn from each other.

ECT: What were your observations of Indian senior managers regarding your environmental stewardship standard?

Heller:

I met power company executives who were building hydropower stations at the same time that India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Washington, D.C., negotiating an agreement for nuclear power. India needs electricity to support its information technology industry and to meet basic needs. Both hydro and nuclear technologies go directly to clean power that does not emit greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change.

These technologies avoid the traditional path of polluting first and cleaning up later, which has been the path followed in the United States and Europe. Compare this with China’s construction of a coal-fired power plant each week to 10 days, and it is easy to see which is the more “advanced” solution when environmental sustainability is the standard.

ECT: Did the executives see their companies in terms of the same sustainability standard that you talk about?

Heller:

Managers, naturally, get engrossed in the daily challenges of running their operations. They struggle with community relations, requirements of government bureaucracies, and materials and personnel management. It is easy to lose sight of the big picture under these pressures.

Managers need to see themselves as global citizens, as being on the right side of history, as contributors to a transformation to a sustainable society.

Understanding how new business models are being created, hearing about examples of new product designs that dematerialize — or use less stuff, of companies that are profiting by using business models enabled by information, and communications [technologies] that substitute services for products was inspiring and enlightening to them.

For example, a power company executive recounted the travails of his efforts to deal with local community resistance to his company’s plan to build a new hydropower plant. I challenged him to frame his project in terms of the need to reduce greenhouse gases.

“How many tons of carbon dioxide will you NOT emit, by building a hydropower plant instead of a coal fired plant?” I asked. Or how many tons of carbon would be emitted if a coal fired plant provided the same amount of electricity?

He was thrilled with this question and began to use his engineering skills to do the computation. But he also got the bigger point: India needs power. The choice is to either build thermal plants that will produce electricity AND emit greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, or to build clean power plants that will not add to the climate’s burden of carbon, to leapfrog over more polluting technologies.

ECT: What other aspects of life in India did you notice with your environmental stewardship approach?

Heller:

Trash. The average American produces four pounds of trash per day. In India, there was no trash can in my room. I would collect trash on a shelf of my desk, and hand it to the woman who came to clean my room.

I became acutely aware of each morsel of trash I created. There was no “away.” I could not just drop trash in a can and put it out of my mind.

This system was simplified by the absence of paper products that are abundant in the United States: paper cups, plastic lids, straws, tissues, paper plates, plastic spoons and forks, all manner of handouts and advertising fliers, brochures, schedules, announcements.

Instead, “real” plates and cups were washed and reused even when they were taken out of the dining hall and brought to me at the guest house. E-mail worked just fine, a single copy of a newspaper was shared, and communication was often person-to-person. Measured against a sustainability standard, it is easy to see which system is more advanced.

Adding to the mindfulness of trash creation was the sight of a plume of smoke spotted on one of my walks around the Indian Institute of Management’s Shillong campus. The sight and smell of burning trash increased my attempts to minimize waste. Like the principle of “extended producer responsibility,” witnessing the processing of the end of life of my trash kept the pressure on to use washable dishes and utensils, to minimize paper use, and to use other products long and well.

What became valuable were things that could be used intensely and that would endure a long time. Single or short use products that had to be tossed out and replaced became an anathema. I felt my environmental footprint shrinking.

Another experience with trash occurred when I arrived in India and realized that I had left two folders full of important papers on the airplane. I went to the British Airways lost luggage desk and waded into the crowd of people with lost luggage.

The airline clerk made a phone call but reported that the crew had not found the missing folders. I left my name and hotel address but wasn’t expecting to see those papers again. I gradually realized that most of what was in the folders was also in my laptop computer — voila, paperless!

ECT: What are your concluding thoughts about what the heads of Indian companies need to know about environmental sustainability?

Heller:

Indian managers need to see themselves as leaders of the global green economy. We in the West have a lot to learn from them. With economies around the world in recession, falling consumption in the so-called consumer economies, and an urgent need to delink economic development from environmental degradation, we need the wisdom of both Eastern and Western ways of managing.

I find hope in management approaches and consultancies that base their practice in Indian culture’s inclinations toward sustainable development. AllIndiaLive.org is one example.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Related Stories

Cryptocurrency is a viable hedge against inflation: Agree or Disagree?
Loading ... Loading ...

E-commerce Times Channels

Back-Office Finance Automation: The Foundation of a Solid E-Commerce Enterprise

accountant using e-invoice software

E-commerce retailers and direct-to-consumer businesses of all sizes are dealing with a ripple effect of business challenges. These include continued inflation increasing the cost of goods and squeezing customers’ disposable income, global supply chain shortages, increased out-of-stocks, and more demanding customer expectations.

Add to that, the Great Resignation has led to a mass exodus of vital frontline and back-office workers, leaving retailers understaffed and hard-pressed to provide the service that customers want.

Fortunately, new digital technologies continue to help e-commerce businesses innovate by expanding online shopping options, improving forecasting and inventory management with AI-powered analytics, upgrading customer service with RPA customer-service bots, enabling last-mile optimization systems for omnichannel experiences, and increasing customer buying power at the point-of-sale with services like buy now, pay later.

These are all incredibly important capabilities supporting the front end of the business. But there are also technologies that work behind the scenes. like AP automation, that can deliver important value and quick ROI by helping e-tailers and direct-to-consumer businesses streamline cumbersome finance workflows, improve controls and security, reduce costs, empower remote employees, and help offset staff shortages.

FAQ
What are the benefits to e-commerce companies of automating AP processes?

Automating accounts payable processes provides several advantages:

  • Faster, more efficient finance processes and workflows
  • Fewer errors and less manual effort required to correct them
  • More satisfied and productive staff
  • Reduced full-time equivalent (FTE) requirements and operational costs
  • Increased cash-back rebates from suppliers
  • Happier vendors better positioned to support supply needs
  • Better cash flow management
  • Reduced risk of fraud

Manual Processes Create Inefficiency and Hinder Growth

Businesses still receive a surprisingly high number (25%) of paper invoices, and 47% are not using any type of invoice workflow automation solution. E-commerce is no exception. In my experience working with e-tailers and direct-to-consumer businesses, many are still making more than 50% of their supplier payments via check.

AP staff at these businesses are wasting valuable time and effort opening paper invoices, capturing and entering data, emailing or calling approvers, printing and mailing checks, and responding to questions from suppliers.

It’s a problem in any industry, but it becomes even more complicated in e-commerce where finance teams tend to manage many supplier invoices. In addition, as supply chain disruptions continue, it’s important for e-commerce businesses to do everything they can to maintain reliable inventory sources. This includes getting key vendors paid on time.

The Power of AP Automation

Modern accounts payable solutions can automate the entire invoice-to-pay process by providing a single workflow to capture invoices, automatically sync data in ERP and finance systems, simplify approvals, and send payments however suppliers prefer to receive them, whether that’s check, ACH, virtual card, or even cross-border.

These solutions can address much of what an e-commerce business needs including vendor onboarding, invoice capture, coding, approvals, and supplier management — as well as payment authorization, execution, and reconciliation.

The benefits to accounting and finance teams are obvious, but they also provide important advantages for many other parts of e-tail and direct-to-consumer businesses. Here are six examples:

1. Streamlined Invoice Workflows

Many finance teams spend the bulk of their time on manual, paper-based invoice processes. Full invoice-to-pay automation captures and codes invoices with far fewer errors than manual data entry and significantly reduces time spent processing invoices.

2. Improved Visibility and Control

Intuitive tools and centralized reporting provide users with detailed views of days payables outstanding (DPOs), pending or past-due invoices, and other category reports. In addition, specific employees can be granted access to the same level of reporting to gain real-time insights into invoice processing.

These capabilities help e-commerce businesses make the right decisions related to payment timing to maximize working capital and take advantage of early-pay discounts.

3. Reduced Costs and Generation of New Revenues

AP automation delivers where it matters for e-commerce businesses: top-line revenue growth and a stronger bottom line. Eliminating paper-based processes and manual data entry and using e-payments can reduce costs per invoice by up to 430%. In addition, rebates from virtual card payments can generate significant new revenues delivering a complete ROI while funding other parts of the business.

4. Increased Staff Productivity

The time employees spend on manual payment processes could be spent on higher-value initiatives such as optimizing receivables, providing proactive support to suppliers, or developing new internal processes.

For managers forced to multitask, it means less time in the back office and more time focused on customers. When hiring back-office help is tough, AP automation helps e-commerce businesses grow without adding headcount.

5. Empower Remote Work

AP automation allows finance staff to review and approve invoices or pay suppliers from anywhere, using any device. Similarly, month-end closing and AP audit data can be accessed remotely, further minimizing the need for staff to be in an office or store.

6. Stronger Vendor Relationships

Brands, wholesalers, and other suppliers are the lifeblood of any e-commerce business. The industry is already suffering from inventory issues; the prospect of late or missed payments adds additional risk of disruption.

Improving the ability to pay on time builds better relationships, adds leverage to negotiate discounts, and minimizes the chance of additional supply chain issues.

The Right Strategy

E-commerce is built on digital customer experiences and processes. That same thinking needs to be applied to the financial back office. Automating foundational processes like accounts payable can provide e-commerce operations with proven methods to overcome key supply-side challenges and deliver far-ranging benefits that help all facets of the business.

Matt Friend is VP, product and program management, at MineralTree, a provider of accounts payable and payment automation solutions.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Related Stories
VENDOR PROFILE

Robotic Letter Writing Lends a Hand to Personalized Marketing, CRM

Image Credit: Handwrytten

The art of automating business communication extends to resurrecting handwritten letters to customers and maximizing the appearance with a robot labor force to produce the correspondence.

The Handwrytten app is part of an automated CRM tool that lets businesses — and individuals with an entrepreneurial passion — integrate computerized automation with personalized handwritten notes to customers. The result is a novel approach to updating one of marketing’s best-known strategies — the personal letter.

Retailers today have all but destroyed the effectiveness of thank you notes and personalized business letters. Delivered electronically in plain vanilla typed emails and SMS messages, people have learned to reach for the delete button or send-to-spam response for most of the retail-related correspondence arriving in inboxes.

The Handwrytten web-based service uses robots to finesses marketing messages into handwritten polished prose. It helps marketing teams reintroduce and automate what was once a fine art of letter writing. The Handwrytten app and computer interface let you create professionally designed handwritten notes that are delivered to customers and clients’ postal mailboxes.

Consumers expect to get emails, text messages, and bulk mailers from companies. They rarely read or pay attention to them on a regular basis. Handwrytten is an effective way for businesses to help their sales and marketing teams to better engage potential and existing customers.

“People understand the power of the personal note, but nobody has the time to sit down and actually pick up a pen and write one. This is why we built a platform to automate the process from end to end,” said David Wachs, founder and CEO of Handwrytten.

Leveraging cutting-edge robotic technology automates what is seemingly impossible to automate. These notes have been proven to drive incredible and lasting results for our clients, he added.

Fine Art Revisited

Founded in 2014, Wachs had a vision of bringing back handwritten communication to business. He wanted to fill an unmet need: making handwritten notes as easy to send as an email.

To solve this problem, he invested heavily in robotics to build a machine unmatched in handwriting quality and scalability. His 175+ patented Handwrytten robots each autonomously writes nearly 500 notes a day.

Handwrytten factory

Image Credit: Handwrytten


The company now builds its own handwriting robots to produce more realistic penmanship. Each robot machine monitors its ink levels and communicates with tenders via Slack if it jams or runs out of ink.

To scale, the company continues to build more machines to meet demand. Wachs plans to double machine capacity this year.

This 2016 video shows how the company first used off-the-shelf, third-party machines to fulfill orders.

Machine Maintains Humanlike Mannerism

The handwriting is indistinguishable from real human handwriting. The robotic hands can produce 23 handwriting styles.

Alternatively, users can upload their own handwriting and signature for a truly personalized style. That option comes with a one-time fee.

Either way, users can select from more than 100 card designs or design their own online. Deliveries can include business cards or gift cards to over 20 popular brands, including Starbucks, Home Depot, Amazon, and Visa can further foster relationships with customers.

Handwrytten bulk order production

For bulk letter orders, each copy is originally copied, not photocopied from the robot-printed initial letter. (Image Credit: Handwrytten)


“Handwrytten is the largest and longest running service of its kind. We allow people to go to our website, or use our app integration, and choose a card or design their own. They also choose a handwriting style and type a message. We then convert the message into the handwriting style,” Wachs told CRM Buyer.

Keeping It Real

The company is tweaking several improvements into the robot hands to make the writing look even more real. A new version of the web app will deliver better usability and more features.

Some of the “tricks” built into the robot mechanism to defy creation by mechanical hands include:

  • Using up to 10 copies of each letter in both upper and lowercase form randomly put in the note to ensure enough variation;
  • Capturing the unique ligature combinations of a handwriting style (or font), such as two O’s next to each other, two T’s, or connecting T and H or O and F;
  • Varying the spacing between lines and randomizing this interline spacing subtly, along with varying the left margin and ensuring that each line starts at a different spot, creates more organic-looking writing.

The company is working on fixing its main remaining complaint: straightness by bending words. Its updated handwriting engine now bends each line of text to create an even more organic effect.

Behind the Scenes

When I first discovered the Handwrytten service, I planned to check it out further as a possible business product review. That approach gave way to a more detailed discussion with the company’s driving force, David Wachs.

The product reviewer part of me wanted to know more about how the robotic handwriting process transforms the customer’s initial typed correspondence into an “Is it real?” finished product.

Wachs declined to reveal specifics about the transformation process. He confided that they build, program, and maintain their robotic machinery in a large facility in Phoenix to write out notes and mail them.

Primarily a tool for businesses, Handwrytten’s client base ranges from Fortune 500 corporations to small retailers and consumers. It currently has over 85,000 customers using the platform, according to Wachs.

The company has options for any budget. Pricing starts at $3.25 to send one Handwrytten note, with discounts for bulk orders and subscriptions.

All of its cards are available without a contract. The company also offers subscription plans, bulk discounts, and prepay options.

Wachs also disclosed that some limitations exist with the Handwrytten app (available for Android and iOS). The apps do not allow the user to bulk upload lists of contacts. Nor do they currently support signatures. But those features are forthcoming.

“The apps also do not allow the new prospecting tool, which allows the user to target a demographic or geographic area and blanket the area with Handwrytten notes,” he said. “The rest of the functionality is the same, however.”

Orders are stamped with First Class postage and mailed from the factory. The U.S. Postal Service delivers all mail to the continental U.S. in three-to-four days. The company also delivers to Canada, the U.K., and 190 other countries.

Marketing Tool Advantages

As a marketing tool, Handwrytten notes offer benefits over using in-office CRM software and in-house or commercial printing services. Perhaps the most significant is Handwritten notes have a 300% higher open rate than print pieces, according to Wachs.

Additionally, Handwritten notes have a very high likelihood of being considered surprising while having a low risk of being regarded as annoying, he noted.

When consumers do not feel appreciated by a brand, Handwritten notes have a statistically significant ability to improve brand perception and get consumers to come back and buy more, Wachs concluded.

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Related Stories
More by Jack M. Germain
More in Marketing