The sustainable supply chain has become a vital – and ever more visible – element of social corporate responsibility.
Fueled by consumer demands, increasing regulations and a mounting business case, steering supply chains in a more sustainable direction has grown from laudable ambition to requisite for long-term preservation.
A sustainable supply chain is about far more than the environment, though that’s where consumers might focus their attention. Sustainability is a confluence of social, ecological and economic environments. A sustainable supply chain must avoid compromising both the environment and the business itself.
It’s also important to recognise that a “responsible” supply chain isn’t necessarily the same thing as a “sustainable” supply chain. A responsible supply chain typically ensures it operates within all legal and ethical parameters. This doesn’t affirm sustainability, however. A sustainable supply chain takes into account environmental and societal reference points. The sustainable chain requires that all partners consider how their processes and actions can be supported by nature and society over the long term.
There’s no quick and easy path to sustainability, but the right supply chain solutions can help your business strive toward, and eventually achieve, a bottom line defined by not just profit but also by people and the planet.
Create a detailed map
Little, if nothing, can be accomplished within your supply chain if you don’t have useful visibility of it. Shockingly few companies actually have detailed views of their entire supply chains, which are more complex and global than ever. Mapping your entire supply chain is the starting point. A quality map of your supply chain will allow you to identify impacts, risks and drivers of waste.
This “aerial” view of the chain can help you understand environmental, economic and social challenges faced by suppliers. These can be extremely variable based on your industry, but a thorough map of the chain accounts for how human and natural resources are used along each step of operational and production process.
Educate and change the culture
Some measures to sustainability require not only procedural changes, but behavioral and cultural changes. An important step to achieving sustainability is earning buy-in from your own staff and that of suppliers. Education and training resources can help align everyone with the mission. Showcase success stories and leverage successful case studies to build momentum within your organisation and throughout the chain. Develop training programs that instill the mission from the time new employees are onboarded.
Encourage and assist upstream
Sustainability can’t be accomplished unilaterally. You’ll need support and co-operation all the way back upstream. Though you may not have the kind of persuasive power over your chain like a Walmart or Amazon, you do have the ability to influence supplier practices. Performing audits and/or enacting codes of conduct can encourage suppliers to promote your sustainability efforts.
Furthermore, be willing to assist them when possible. Helping them with best practices design and implementation advances your sustainability efforts while furthering the overall goals. It might be necessary to apply pressure in some instances, but don’t be afraid to do so if the ultimate objectives are important to you.
Technology has taken supply chain management from art to science. Continued advances in technology are providing organisations with once-unconceivable abilities to analyze, tweak, measure and optimise operational processes like inventory management, order and distribution management and transportation management. Insights gained through data and machine learning can be leveraged to find and exploit opportunities for sustainable processes.
Individual efforts don’t solve complex supply chain issues, at a personal level or even a company level. Many competing companies share portions of supply chains, and collaborating on efforts to develop and establish sustainable practices can benefit all. While it may feel counterintuitive to work with rivals, combining efforts on sustainability practices not only advances the objectives, but offers an opportunity for positive public perception and to build credibility with industry and consumers.
Build on success
You track financial objectives, such as revenue and profit, of course. It’s said you can’t improve what you can’t measure, so develop sustainability objectives and track their successes. Then, build on these successes and use them as springboards to further your efforts.
The road to sustainability can’t be accomplished overnight, and it won’t be done with shortsighted or apathetic efforts. It might also require initial investment to facilitate the necessary procedural and cultural changes. By starting your efforts now and building on each small success, innovation will breed throughout the process and strengthen the business case to work in conjunction with the social case.
Consumer demands and changing regulations have pushed environmental concerns into the discussion for businesses across the globe. Ultimately, a sustainable approach to supply chains will be the only viable choice for any company’s long-term success.
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