Fantastic Products but where to find them?

Published on
April 26, 2022

This is the title of the inaugural lecture Sander de Leeuw will be giving in honour of his inauguration. The ceremony will take place on the 28th April in the Aula. De Leeuw is chair group holder of the Operations Research and Logistics Group at the Social Science Department. He will be succeeding Jacqueline Bloemhof, who passed away in 2020.

What do you find so interesting about logistics?

De Leeuw: “I find it fascinating that logistics touches on all facets of business operations. This makes it an interdisciplinary topic, focused on applications, and therefore touching on issues that are close to the practice. What I often see is that people start from a theory, and then check whether their work fits the practice. I think it should be the other way around. I start from the practice, which results in a number of interesting problems that can then be linked to scientific questions, and therefore interesting research.”

What do logistics have to do with food transition?

“What I find really interesting is the combination of optimising what we eat and exploring how the surrounding logistics are structured. Clearly, we have to reduce our meat consumption, and we are looking for alternatives. But the question then is: Where does this food come from, and is it actually sustainable? Or are we in some way putting the cart before the horse? The answers to these questions have a direct effect on logistics. For example, if you decide to import less soy from Brazil, it will turn the existing logistics processes on their head. A step like this has an immediate impact on international flows. This is what I find so interesting.

It’s still relatively unexplored territory to look at the logistics around food transitions. We have as yet no idea of what these chains could look like. For example, if you focus on minimising land use, the chain will look very different than if you focus on minimising water use or climate impact.”

Is it better to buy cheese directly from the farmer, or choose Dutch tomatoes over Spanish ones?

“Short chains are not by definition more sustainable. For example, if lots of people decide in the context of a project like ‘Buren van Boeren’ to drive to their local farm to buy their cauliflower themselves, this is neither efficient nor sustainable. And yet, it’s a short chain. It would be better to make use of a supermarket’s centralised system and distribution centre. Sustainable logistics is often about volume: transporting small quantities leads to more pollution. Look at services like Getir,, Picnic. These kinds of services don’t have a revenue model; they require more people and actions to get a product to your door. When looking at products: What is more sustainable? A Dutch tomato, or a Spanish one? Dutch tomatoes grow in a greenhouse, and require additional nutrients, while Spanish tomatoes grow straight from the ground. But Spanish tomatoes require transport. An important aspect in this context is that it’s not clear to the customer what’s really happening behind the scenes.”

In your inaugural lecture, you talk about the effects of COVID-19 on logistics. Can you explain?

“COVID-19 showed us what happens when available manpower drops dramatically. People were ill or in quarantine because of COVID-19, which led to problems, for example in ports, where the logistical processes ran into difficulties. Marketing and sales are usually leading in business, but recent research into the COVID-19 situation showed that logistics should actually be the number one priority in such cases. If a product can’t be delivered, the shelves in the shops will remain empty, no matter how great the product. As far as I’m concerned, we need to emphasise the importance of logistics more.

The growing variety of products that we’ve become used to as customers is playing havoc with us. One solution for keeping logistics manageable is to have fewer products on the shelves. But we all want mangoes, so the chains are becoming increasingly long and international. Shouldn’t we be more critical about all the things we want to eat?”

Is there a solution in making the logistics behind the chains more visible?

“The processes behind supply and logistics are more or less invisible for consumers. I think it would be a good idea to map where each product comes from. A long time ago, I ran a project of this kind with some students. The question was: how many kilometres does this product travel on average before it ends up on the shelf? For milk, the distance is quite short; factories tend to be located in the vicinity of farms. But take rice yogurt with chocolate, for example: both chocolate and rice come from far away. It would be interesting to include this kind of data about distance travelled on the packaging, just like you can now see on the packaging where your fresh beans come from. But this is probably still a bridge too far.”

After defending his PhD in Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences at Eindhoven University of Technology, Sander de Leeuw moved to the US, where he worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), researching issues surrounding car distribution. After moving back to the Netherlands, he worked for a software company and did some consultancy work. He then returned to Eindhoven University of Technology, and worked from 2004 onwards at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. In 2019, he switched to the Operations Research and Logistics Group at Wageningen University & Research, where he was appointed chair group holder. He still holds a part-time position at the Nottingham Business School with a teaching and research remit in supply chain management.

De Leeuw has always been interested in the link between academia and the corporate sector.