Why Supply Chains Will Save the World and How You Can Help

The rate of mass-consumption, increased population, and dynamics of social-cultural changes where humans are living in the moment cannot be sustained on its current path. The availability of natural resources are declining at alarming rates due to low consensus world views, lack of accountability in industrial systems for CO2 emissions, and hyperbolic discounting. Most would agree that something must be done, but many (including environmentalists) disagree with the approach and which preventative measures should be prioritized in order to limit environmental damage.

Who is responsible for sustainability?

Is it the consumer, the Chief Sustainability Officer, EH&S, the CEO? I believe each of us are responsible for the world we share. However, supply chainS (yes with an ‘S’) own the responsibility of product stewardship, how natural and human resources are used across processes, whether in the supply chain or in direct operations. Understanding total costs of ownership means companies must also consider a wide range of environmental, social, and economic issues. The veracity and variety of product offerings means that these issues may differ significantly from industry, company, or product. The opportunity to make and sell goods sustainably involves ecosystem orchestration, alignment from all trading partners in a multi-tier supply chain to enact stewardship. Who else is better positioned to care for material and resource flows end-to-end? With data and insights, network sharing, by process stage, by node, and all actors across a supply chain, we can act responsibly to build infrastructure and transition toward a circular economy.

Why isn’t it happening at scale? 

The answer is complicated. System dynamics teach us that addressing one part of a system, process, or actor does not yield systemic change. The changes and standards needed are global and cooperative, where benefits may not be realized immediately or specific to the party enacting the change. History shows a pattern of defecting behavior in dilemmas involving common pool resources.

Many take an approach of “less bad” or “only if forced” through compliance to cooperate. Commitment by governments and business leaders requires transformational improvements in sustainability performance starting with clear sustainability gaps and opportunities across a supply chain that includes the life cycle analysis of materials flowing end-to-end and end of life to define circular opportunities.

Because supply chains are interoperable in many consumer sectors, companies have recognized the benefit of collective action and have collaborated with supplier networks and trading partners in sustainability efforts. For example, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a global network of more than 400 retailers, manufacturers, and other companies, made a collective commitment to achieve zero net deforestation. Organizations are available to offer measurement outlines and build reporting mechanisms to focus areas during sustainability transformations. These organizations can help guide companies to find the most critical sustainability issues in their supply chains by industry and sector. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, CDP, and the Global Reporting Initiative have developed standards that help public companies across ten sectors, including consumer goods, giving investors and consumers material information about corporate sustainability performance along the supply chain.

But does this get us closer to saving the world? 

I know what you’re thinking...this still doesn’t address the propensity to mass consume or the complicated ties to GDP. The elephant in the room, well virtually...is it gets us closer. There are many influences in play. I struggle with an assumption that if humans consume sustainably (consumers and businesses alike), does that mean we consume responsibly? Are we stewards in the care of materials and common pool resources cradle to cradle? I believe cooperation is still needed at the level of business process. Despite what you may read online around technologies that move us closer to circular, agnostic, decentralized transactions across supply chains, we still struggle with interoperability, global standards, and managing change in the future of work.

 I’ve asked myself countless times who has the biggest impact in saving the world?

The Answer?

The answer is the consumer (that would be you and I) possess the power to transform the linear economy. Why not you? YOU are part of the supply chain. I speak from a place of empowering each person that you can change the world through the power of your pocket. You are the most important actor in the supply chain, *THE* demand signal that is the catalyst, fueling end-to-end business decisions within planetary boundaries. It’s difficult for most to understand the influence and importance s/he plays in a global tapestry of decisions and coordination.

The marketplace is changing as U.S. companies feel the effects that poor sustainability and waste management can have on profitability and growth. The LOHAS and Naturalites make up more than 40% of the U.S. consumer market alone. We need to raise levels of education in sustainability, increasing the application of research and best practice in industry. Additionally, the adoption of public policy and standards, the use of sustainable applications across the supply chain including product design, and alternative business models like Product-as-a-Service that promote circularity in sustainable economies need to be championed and shouted from the highest mountain tops. Lastly, human behaviors including broadening cultural world-views that promote a better understanding in sustainable purchasing decisions and greater public awareness and commitment are all essential for progress. 

Be the Change.

If you take away one thing from this post, breathe in and digest that you are a critical part of the systemic change. You can be a sustainability hero. You have the ability to share information both digitally and physically, to apply this in your daily life, in your own decision making, including your business role. Something as simple as sharing this post or talking about the topics herein in the break room with colleagues, on social media, or at home with your family and friends. Plant the seed, choose to buy from companies who walk the talk. Call out green-washing on social media and hold folks accountable for undesirable behavior in the world we share, the world that is impacted every minute by UN-sustainability. Lastly, choose green products, and even if it’s one choice in the store this week...it’s one step in a green direction. All the best and thank you for your support.

About The Author

Sheri R. Hinish
Sheri R. Hinish
SupplyChainQueen ® | Executive Advisor and Change Leader | EY Principal and Senior Leader | Passionate about Supply Chain, Sustainability, Innovation, and Inclusion|

To read more about Sheri R. Hinish, check out her full bio here.