A cup of coffee. A dining room chair. A leafy green vegetable. When a consumer buys one of these items, they may not know that the supply chain cycle that delivers their piping hot mocha latte, fresh bundle of kale, or other consumer good contributes to 60 percent of greenhouse emissions, 75 percent of forced and child labor, 80 percent of water withdrawal, and 60 percent of tropical deforestation on the planet.
But the companies that manufacture these end products are starting to pay more attention. That’s because there are real business reasons for doing so. Those shoppers that do care tend to be the most vocal and visible about environmental sustainability and are demanding more transparency and stewardship from retailers.
Ignorance is not bliss
But even beyond the public relations factor, there are strategic motivations for improving the sustainability of the supply chain. Not the least among these is the reliability of supply itself. Companies that fail to analyze and understand where the materials come from that make their products are exposed to greater risk of supply interruption, cost inefficiencies, and missed opportunities for gaining competitive advantages in their markets.
Consider coffee for example. If a company makes products relying on coffee, it had better be concerned with not just where that coffee comes from, but how climate change might be impacting its cultivation, as well as the politics in the regions where it’s grown. For such a company, taking steps to protect that environment is not only good community citizenship, it’s savvy business strategy.
Retail giants Walmart, Amazon, Kroger, and Walgreens have taken note and are leading the trend toward deeper engagement into the social and environmental impacts of their product supply chains. It’s not only good for the planet, it’s good business as well.
Supply chains have grown increasingly complex, so questions of where materials come from and how sustainable they are, are not that simple to answer. That’s why The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) has developed science-based metrics and tools to help retailers such as Walmart better understand and influence their own supply chain practices. These help companies prioritize meaningful action. For example, Walmart’s Sustainability Index currently assesses suppliers to identify and address “hot spots,” or areas where rapid positive change is most needed.
Over the past several years, TSC’s Chief Scientist Kevin J. Dooley, Distinguished Professor of Supply Chain Management, and his team have developed data-driven surveys, key performance indicators (KPI), standards, and toolkits for several major product categories.
By sharing clear diagrams of industry supply chain cycles, the consortium team helps businesses visualize the larger, interconnected picture of product origin, production, packaging, intermediate agents, delivery to the retailer, consumer use, and product end of life.
Each industry has a different level of complexity. Leafy vegetables, for example, involve a short chain from grower to broker to retailer, while computers require more complex production processes.
Dooley likens the retailers to a central pivot point with millions of touchpoints on both the consumer side and the manufacturing side.
“By sharing sustainability measurement tools with large, well-known brands at the hub of the $14 trillion global economy, we’re on an exciting track to influence social and environmental stewardship involving $1 trillion of consumer sales,” he says.
What’s in the soup?
Until recently, most businesses have focused on sustainability improvements within their own four walls, such as using energy-saving light bulbs or reducing paper consumption.
The good news, according to TSC’ 2017 report, titled “The Call for Collective Action across Supply Chains,” is that consumer goods companies are making progress in engaging suppliers to complete sustainability surveys, with an 80 percent compliance rate. This accounts for a combined $200 billion in retail sales.
The bad news is the majority of manufacturers are still in the dark. Another key report finding is that most companies simply don’t know what’s going on in their supply chain, with 70 percent of the 2,000 survey respondents in 2016 reporting that they were “unable to determine at this time” scores for many key performance indicators (KPI).
“A tomato soup brand can tell you exactly where they source their tomatoes, but ask them where the salt comes from and they can’t name the country of origin,” says Dooley.
There were bright spots. Product categories that scored the highest (more than 64 percent) in the TSC surveys were diapers, computers, household papers, leafy vegetables, and automotive batteries — meaning that these suppliers provided more data. Some have their own sustainability standards in place. Computer companies, for example, are used to delivering metrics to comply with eco-certifications such as ENERGY STAR, while household paper retailers undergo sustainable forest certification.