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What are the drivers of unsustainable supply chains?

Unsustainable supply chains - FarmerIs it an impossible dream that worldwide supply chains will one day become perfectly sustainable, with all countries working towards the same ecological goals, using renewable energy sources and protecting biodiversity?

The western world and its regulatory organisations have been obsessed with a desire to create sustainable global commodity markets since the Den Bosch Declaration in April 1991. This agreement on agriculture and the global environment was made by senior Government officials from 120 countries under the banner of the Food and Agriculture Organisation wing of the United Nations.

On reflection, it may have been short-sighted for 120 Government representatives wearing suits and all with University educations to demand “fundamental changes” across the world to increase food production without cutting down forests or destroying watersheds. However I am sure there are steps we can take to help make our supply chains more sustainable. But how could we tackle this daunting task?

I feel that there are a number of questions we should be asking ourselves to help get an understanding of what the main challenges of sustainability are:

People

It may be easy for us to expect our supply chain to be sustainable, but will it ever be practical to expect the rural farmers living in the third world to understand what the Den Bosch Declaration contains?

With half the world driving to retail parks in their fancy cars while the other half takes their goods to a street market in bags thrown over their valuable and irreplaceable donkey, we have to understand that these ‘fundamental changes’ may be harder to implement than was first thought.

It’s all about ENERGY

There is no doubt that the availability and use of energy is the elephant in everyone’s room. Energy is needed in all countries to survive the winters, for cooking, driving machines – from simple tractors and ploughs in the field, to factories producing high technology products from a bag of crisps, to an expensive car.Sustainable energy within supply chains

We all know that the use of fossil fuels is not sustainable, but we also know how complex and costly it is to implement a sustainable alternative. I am sure that the agricultural worker in the fields of the third world does not have a choice between electric central heating and solar panels on their tin roof forcing them to stick to wood and coal to meet their energy needs.

But the modern, digital, internet-driven west certainly does have this choice, however Governments are slow to implement changes for fear of unsettling vested interests. Maybe a push to the use of sustainable resources within the Western world and education (and possible funding) for those in the third world could be a step forward towards global supply chain sustainability.   

Inequality isn’t the end of sustainability

It is impossible for every person in every country to make the same product, in the same way, using the same energy source, tools and ingredients. Although it won’t be easy, there are always going to be ways in which we can try to get this process as sustainable as possible to help benefit all parties, from big businesses to rural farmers).

Should we be trying to persuade those with little knowledge or resource to buy into the digital western ideal of technology and social media, or is it more sustainable in the longer term for the western world to recognise that excessive consumerism is having a large negative impact on our environment.

Policy failure

Is it a failure in policy when farmers use fertilisers and pesticides, and overexploit their land, or is it a simple matter of survival in lands that would yield a reduced crop otherwise, seriously affecting their family survival?

Is it also a failure in policy if such policies are promoting farming systems which are inappropriate to the circumstances of that farming community and beyond their available resources?

I think it is clear to see that there is a gap between what these policies want to do and what is actually possible for the farmers to do, I think instead of complaining about farmers using unsustainable methods we should be looking at ways to help support them and think of ways in which we can make these policies achievable whilst still taking steps towards a sustainable supply chain.

Rural inequalities

People living in rural areas are very often aware of how to conserve their environment, but survival forces them to overexploit resources. Large businesses who own large areas of land have policies of attaining higher profits and degradation of the environment is most likely not at the top of their agenda. But what could we do to increase the importance of this for big businesses, could the threat of fines for not being sustainable or incentives for being sustainable help change their priorities?

Unsustainable Technology

The world has now discovered that its use of technologically created pesticides to boost agricultural output of crops, is leading to a catalogue of harmful side effects such as; insect resistance to chemical pesticides, erosion of land, loss of nutrients and a reduction in vital bio-diversity such as bees. Should we be looking at how we can reduce the use of these harmful pesticides to help protect us and the environment? This problem is not going to go away and will only get worse with time unless we start to resolve it.

United Nations Global Compact

The UN have now admitted: “Extending the UN Global Compact’s Ten Principles into the supply chain can be difficult because of the scale and complexity of many supply chains.”

To ameliorate this, the UN are promoting the following recommendations to companies across the globe, in a Global Compact:

The UN Global Compact encourages companies to make sustainability a priority from the top of the organization. If the chief executive sees the supply chain as an extension of their workforce and community, the company can set expectations for best practices across its supply chain. These can include key areas such as selection, training, auditing and remediation.

Doing so promotes a broader understanding within an organization of how decisions made, beyond procurement, can affect the supply chain. For example, legal staff,
product developers and marketing all can have an impact. In addition, companies must look at their supply chain as a whole, and consider the suppliers that may have the most significant challenges to address.

To help, the UN Global Compact hosts a website that is a one-stop shop for materials, initiatives and business practices on supply chain sustainability. Additionally, they develop guidance, such as the recent Guide to Traceability and the Practical Guide for Continuous Improvement to assist companies in developing more sustainable supply chain practices. They also host webinars on topics such as SME supplier engagement, gender equality and occupational health and safety in the supply chain.

Because supply chain sustainability is a cross-cutting issue, they apply this work across all four UN Global Compact issue areas (human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption).

Source: https://www.unglobalcompact.org/what-is-gc/our-work/supply-chain

But will all of this work? And how long will it take?

The journey to a sustainable supply chain around the world is going to be a long and complicated one, but it can definitely be done.

While you work with your supply chain on ways to improve sustainability it might be an idea to restrict your supply chain to countries who are on board with the global agenda, and have suitable procedures to implement it.

Our next vital task is how to explain all this to the end user, the customer on the street, who wonders why prices are suddenly going up. I think slight increases in price could be a better option than relying on an unsustainable supply chain that could fail in the not so distant future.

Is your business taking steps to a more sustainable supply chain, or do you have any suggestions of how we can tackle this issue? We would love to hear from you – Feel free to get involved in our discussion on LinkedIn here

Traceability and sustainability of food

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