Axelle Starek and Katrien Brems of DHL Express: 'Innovation is the lever for making logistics more sustainable'

25/01/2023 — minutes reading time
Axelle Starek en Katrien Brems cropped

Deutsche Post DHL Group has set itself the goal of being completely CO2-neutral by 2050. 'Innovation, cooperation and sharing knowledge will play a major role in reaching that goal,' say Axelle Starek and Katrien Brems of DHL Express Belgium, an Innovation Partner of Log!Ville.

DPDHL has accelerated its decarbonisation efforts, with the prime aim being to use the science-based targets initiative to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement. If nothing is done, then the expected growth of the company could result in emissions increasing to 46 million tons per year in 2030 as a result of worldwide logistics operations. Instead of that, the company has committed itself to cutting its annual carbon emissions to under 29 million tons.

'In order to achieve this goal the group has set aside 7 billion euros to make operations greener and develop climate-neutral logistics solutions,' says Axelle Starek, Quality & Sustainability Manager for DHL Express Belgium. 'The plan is based on four pillars – by 2030 the use of sustainable aircraft fuel will be increased to more than 30 percent, and 60 percent of the last-mile fleet and 30 percent of scheduled service trucks will be electric. Moreover, all new buildings since 2021 are being designed to be carbon-neutral, as is already the case for our Blue Gate distribution centre in Antwerp, as well as in Roeselare and soon in Courcelles too. The fourth pillar entails offering our clients green alternatives to all our core products and solutions.'

Making aviation sustainable

In order to achieve these four objectives, the group is undertaking an entire series of initiatives, some of which are very ambitious and daring. Many revolve around aviation, a significant part of DHL Express' operations. 'Our first step is to use sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which is manufactured using organic waste materials but which is much more expensive than kerosene,' says Katrien Brems, Product & Sales Development Manager. 'At present, not much is available either.' DHL Express will be the biggest user of SAF in the DHL Group.

Aside from the use of SAF, DHL also sees five other levers that can make it a leader of sustainable aviation.

  • The continuous upgrading or re-fleeting of the aircraft, so that the company has the most energy-efficient planes;
  • A permanent focus on optimising fuel consumption using technology, weight balancing or a new optimised network design;
  • The decarbonisation of ground handling through electrification or the use of hydrogen fuel;
  • Ordering 12 Alice electric aircraft for short-distance freight hauling, with the first airplane set to be delivered in 2024;
  • Offering environmentally friendly products, such as the "insetting" of SAF.


Aside from offsetting, which entails compensating for carbon emissions by, for example planting trees, DHL Express is also pursuing insetting, which is a recent and innovative concept. It already features in green electricity, where the consumer cannot always know that their power is environmentally friendly, but does know that it is in any event being produced and is delivered elsewhere.

'We have created the Go Green Plus programme to offer our clients insetting,' says Brems. 'Through insetting, companies can directly reduce the CO2 footprint of the airfreight. There is no external compensation for those emissions, as is the case for offsetting (such as tree-planting), and instead the compensation occurs within our own supply chain by using SAF.' The insetting process is reported with a high degree of accuracy and certified.

Last-mile decarbonisation

There is also a great deal of innovation in the last mile phase, with a great example being DHL Express' pioneering introduction some years back of the Cubicycle, a cargo bicycle with exchangeable containers that has now become a familiar sight in Antwerp and elsewhere.

Then there is also its StreetScooter, an electric delivery van that was created over a decade ago by Aachen University. With StreetScooter technology becoming outdated, Deutsche Post DHL is now working with Ford Pro, with the marque set to deliver over 2,000 electric delivery vans to the group, while the companies will also work together on exploring digital and charging solutions and potential future products for specific activities. DPDHL is a firm believer in co-creation for making technology more efficient and accelerating its development.

Local initiatives

'An investment of 7 billion euros in sustainability marks a serious undertaking,' says Axelle Starek. 'While the investment is on a group level, the resulting initiatives can still differ in each country. Belgium, for example, has its own characteristics in terms of matters such as population density, which require or enable separate achievements and projects. That means that, to some extent, we can decide on how to achieve these ambitions.'

The high population density in Belgium means that distances are relatively short and electric delivery vans can be easier to use. Of the 40 delivery vans operating out of Blue Gate in Antwerp, 17 are already e-vans, and ten electric cargo bicycles are also used. DHL Express Belgium also ordered another 78 electric delivery vans last year, which are now being deployed. Over half the vehicles in Antwerp today are already electric ones, and in due course all diesel vans will be replaced with electric ones.

Sharing knowledge

'Over the years, DHL has emerged as an innovative knowledge centre for sustainable logistics,' Katrien Brems adds. 'That's why we attach so much importance to sharing and distributing that knowledge, including through the publication of our bi-annual Logistics Trend Radar and of numerous themed reports. This knowledge allows us to, together with our clients, review the technology that exists and what we can do with it. For example, we can work together with them on rethinking their packaging.'

Cross-pollination plays a major role in this sustainability strategy. 'Together with strategic clients in fields such as fashion, we discuss how circularity can be achieved at a faster pace,' she adds. 'How can we join forces to create more sustainable flows? By thinking outside the box together, we can create new solutions that can prove valuable to all our clients.'

'We also share knowledge by working with start-ups or initiating our own start-ups through the DHL Start-up Lab, and intrapreneurship programme that enabled staff from across the world to create new products, services and operating models. Between 2018 and 2021 we launched no less than 46 projects, 21 of which were successfully implemented in DHL and elsewhere,' Brems concludes.