Big ideas for sustainable supply chains

London sustainable development commissioner Ed Gillespie, author of Only Planet: A Flight-Free Adventure Around the World, says an ethical approach will sustain supply chains


Ed Gillespie

Supply chains were always historically shrouded in mystery. There was almost a mystique about the origins of some materials and products, guarded by gentle obfuscation, moderated through managed scarcity, sourced secretively.

However, the globalised growth of the last 20 years has now birthed such complexities, interconnectedness and interdependencies in international supply chains that providence, traceability and transparency have become imperative.

As Europe learnt to its cost in 2013, when this all goes wrong it can go very wrong. Certain supermarket ready meals, such as supposedly “beef” lasagna, weren’t just contaminated with other meats, but contained 100 per cent the wrong species, in this case horse. I’ve not been so disappointed since I ordered Bombay duck.

The horsemeat scandal laid bare convoluted supply chains that defied logic. What a customer might reasonably assume would be a fairly short, linear journey for beef from farm to fork was instead exposed as an impenetrable, interwoven web of trans-continental shipping and processing. It’s little wonder that Dobbin ended up on the table.

The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that same year exposed a more sinister side to supply chains, the terrible, recklessly unsafe conditions in which clothing for top global fashion brands was stitched together by practically indentured, exploited, over-worked employees. The tragic deaths at Rana Plaza were entirely avoidable and cast a lingering pall over the associated companies.

Supply chains must be managed more sustainably to avoid these unnecessary and unacceptable risks to life, limb and reputation. But this is not just about fundamental rights, risk avoidance or reputational defence. Truly innovative and smart supply chain management can be transformed into a suite of integrated positive benefits from enhanced customer trust and loyalty, security of supply and even lower costs.

Mondelez International, for example, set about resolving a dilemma – their Latin American coffee supply chain was at risk. Farmers were leaving coffee-growing in droves, a trend which left unchecked would endanger the sustainability of the company’s sourcing. Futerra Sustainability Communications came up with a big hairy audacious goal for them – creating one million coffee-farming entrepreneurs by 2020 – and wrapped it up in an equally sizeable big creative idea, “Coffee Made Happy”.

Truly innovative and smart supply chain management can be transformed into a suite of integrated positive benefits

The notion was simple: support, educate and train coffee farmers on the ground to run more successful, sustainable businesses, think big in terms of the scale and ambition, and then connect the grower and the drinker in a powerful and compelling way.

Coffee made happy logo
Mondelez International set up the ‘Coffee Made Happy’ initiative

The Coffee Made Happy initiative does all these things, changing the potential prospects of coffee farmers, securing Mondelez’s supply chain and, with the introduction of a Coffee Made Happy logo on packs, builds customer trust and loyalty.

Similarly, Futerra’s work with global brewing giant SAB Miller on their big sustainability idea, “Prosper”, founded on the belief that they as a business only prosper when the communities in which they work and operate also prosper, demonstrates an equally enlightened supply chain approach.

Prosper is based on the five worlds SAB Miller seeks to create: thriving, sociable, resilient, clean and productive. The last “productive” world focuses explicitly on their supply chains, encouraging crop diversification by farmers to ensure beer crops don’t affect food production, and favouring and encouraging small-scale local farmers.

But it’s not just on the business side of things that creativity counts. Futerra’s work on the “Who made my clothes?” fashion revolution campaign, challenging fashionistas the world over to ask manufacturers and retailers how and where their clothes were made and who by, in the aftermath of Rana Plaza, created pressure in the other direction. Tens of thousands, from more than 60 countries around the world, asked the question, pushing for greater transparency and responsibility in global fashion supply chains.

The lesson here is simple. A laissez-faire attitude to supply chain sustainability, crossing fingers or closing eyes and ears, hoping for the best and only acting decisively when something goes terribly wrong is not a strategy at all.

In fact, it’s a liability waiting to happen. In an age of ever-increasing scrutiny, the truth will out fashion revolution style. Instead a proactive, intelligent and responsible approach to securing a genuinely sustainable supply chain, especially when framed within a big, compelling and communicable idea such as Coffee Made Happy or Prosper, can become a massively valuable asset. Literally everyone – producers, customers and your business – can win.

So perhaps it’s time to shine a light into the darker recesses of your own supply chain, do the right thing and then tell everyone about it. Because either you do it or someone else will do it for you. And that rarely turns out well.