SEND ME A RABBIT, BUT KEEP THE PACKAGING ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY, IF YOU PLEASE

SEND ME A RABBIT, BUT KEEP THE PACKAGING ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY, IF YOU PLEASE

The Journal of Commerce Group held a conference jointly with the Port of Baltimore Aug. 9 on ''Global Connectivity in Maritime Transport,'' which was deviously devised to run the day before the Port's Propeller Club CrabFeast, an event at which lots of shipping and logistics types don shirts and shorts and take up their crab hammers for a bit of hands-on seafood munching.

Generally, I have to admit, I try to stay within the five boroughs of New York City and Baltimore, where I spent the night, reminded me why. The city's much-advertised Inner Harbor area was gripped by an iron-fisted sterility - all glass and steel and wind-stirred canyons where pedestrians huddled against the giant shoulders of corporate and municipal structures, and the ''old-style'' crab restaurants smelled of fresh formica. It felt like a disingenuous stage set, a Vegas version of 'Back East'. Outside my hotel, a few limp trees shook as the freeway traffic juddered by, cutting off pedestrian access to the water.Maybe I'm just too irrevocably European, but is there anything wrong with planning a city around...uhh, people, instead of trucks and cars?

According to the predictions of Peter Lytle, who spoke at the conference about the fulfillment of Web-placed orders, there are going to be more trucks dashing around with a greater number of smaller packages thanks to the Internet revolution. I shudder at the thought, along with the trees by the freeway.

Lytle raised another interesting issue that he predicts will become hot in the next few years. All those individial orders going to individual homes mean more packaging. An eight-ounce watch, he said, if it's going on its own, would need around two pounds of packaging to ensure its safe delivery, a great deal more than it would need if it were travelling with its brothers in a batch headed for a department store.

''Companies like Sears and Wal-Mart are going to ignore this issue at their cost,'' he said, arguing that public pressure would force retailers and manufacturers, as well as transportation companies to come up with a greener solution, like resuable sacks and padding.

It reminds me of a great order fulfillment story my father told me recently. During World War II, when he was a boy living in a town outside London, there was severe rationing on food, especially meat. My grandfather had his connections up North, however, and paid a farmer up in Northumberland to send him one rabbit a week for half a crown (around $.20). In those days, it was perfectly legal to send a gutted rabbit through the mail by simply tying a clearly-written luggage label around its legs and dropping it in the mail box. Now there's ''green'' packaging for you.

Unfortunately, this particular arrangement didn't always work out. One week, the rabbit didn't arrive and a little after that, a strange smell started to pervade my father's house. It turned out that his mother had left a window open in a downstairs room the family used as a junk room. The postie, finding no one at home to answer his knock (the rabbit, still in its fur coat, didn't fit through the mail slot) had slipped it through the open window instead, where it had lain undiscovered for days. You can see why signing for home deliveries has become so popular.

There's another point about the rabbit story. In days gone by, you could rely on postal delivery to be fast enough to keep a rabbit fresh. When my mother was clearing out my grandfather's attic one day, she found a postcard dated sometime around the turn of the century, sent by one lady to another in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was an invitation sent in the morning to tea on the same afternoon. With mail as fast and reliable as that, you could practically send ice cream with a penny stamp.

Another story of enviable fufillment efficiency I heard recently from a friend who traveled to India. There is a system of 'dubba-wallas' around the major urban area of Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Office workers in Mumbai have to leave very early in the morning to get to their jobs in time. Every morning, after they have left, their wives or mothers cook the meal (called tiffin) and pack the lunch box (dubba). The dubba-walla collects the dubba and through a relay system, ensures that the right person gets the right dubba. Then, in a miracle of reverse-logistics, all the tiffin boxes are picked up and returned, via foot and train, to the wives in the afternoon.

The only identification marks on these dubbas are some coded scribbles put there by the dubba-walla organization. Since there are hundreds of thousands of dubbas being distributed and collected every day, the way that the right dubbas reach the right people in the workplaces and then back again to the right homes is nothing short of miraculous.

In these days of swanky next-flight-out couriers and just-in-time fulfillment and secure email and pricey guaranteed overnight delivery, I like to be reminded by these stories that we're not always making as much progress in the world of distribution as we might like to think.