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“Hey, Gene”, I was told, “you missed the point on that reverse logistics column you wrote”. Well. A deep breath. No one can learn from their mistakes, if they don’t know what their mistakes are. Heck, if I’ve been learning from every mistake I’ve ever made, I should be approaching brilliance. “What is the point I’ve missed?”, I ask.

It’s explained to me that everyone already knows about the leaking shipments, and everyone already knows about the undeclared shipments, and everyone already knows about the alarming frequency with which “reverse logistics” shipments, those returns from customer back to supplier, are made with non-compliant marks, labels, and shipping papers. “It does no good”, I’m told, “to belabor the extent of the problem, because that’s already clearly understood”. “What is necessary”, my critic continues, “is swift action, swift regulatory action, to help stem this tide before it becomes an overwhelming flood.” I get told I should be leading the vanguard for regulatory change, and not advocating against it.

Okay, okay. I did a poor job making my point last month. Please accept my apologies, and please stay with me as I think I have a better way to make the point now. Let me ask this question: Does the typical ‘reverse logistics’ shipper (the customer making the return) know that he or she is non-compliant? That is the crucial question for this discussion.

If the answer is YES, the reverse logistics offeror knows the shipment is non-compliant, how will changing the regulations help? If the shipper is willing to be knowingly non-compliant, does it really matter what the regulations say? Reverse logistics shipments would still be made in the same, quick, easy, lazy, poorly-packaged, non-compliant, leaking fashion as now.

But, if the answer is NO, then…, well…, then, if the offeror doesn’t know the shipment is non-compliant, how will changing the regulations help? If one isn’t aware of the regulations now, and those regulations change, does it really matter what the regulations are changed to? Reverse logistics shipments would still be made in the same ignorant, poorly-packaged, non-compliant, leaking fashion as now.

Bear with me while I address this central question, “Does the typical ‘reverse logistics’ shipper know that he or she is non-compliant?” using other words. If we change the regulations and the reverse logistics offerors have been intentionally ignoring the regulations, then the regulatory changes will have NO EFFECT. Intentional non-compliance will remain as intentional non-compliance. Or, if we change the regulations and the reverse logistics offerors were unaware of the regulations then the regulatory changes will have NO EFFECT. Those who are unaware of the existence of the DG regulations will still be unaware of the existence of the DG regulations.

So enforcement may help reduce the problem if the problem is willful non-compliance, and outreach may help reduce the problem if the problem is ignorance of the existing regulations, but just changing the regulations is unlikely to have any significant effect. There are actions we need to take, but it is important we take those actions likely to have a positive impact, and avoid wasting effort by taking actions that won’t help. Why spin our wheels changing the regulations to no effect if what we need to do is more enforcement and better outreach?

I didn’t miss the point in last month’s column about the problems with reverse logistics, but apparently I didn’t address it clearly. Hopefully, this has more clarity. From this porch swing, it appears to me that regulatory changes alone will not fix the problems with reverse logistics shipments.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think I’m mistaken.

Written 9/18/2012 for HCB Magazine