When it comes to sustainability, much of the media attention today is around consumer-facing issues. Banning plastic straws, reducing the use of disposable bags – these are hot topics that society is confronting head-on. Last mile issues are incredibly important and key steps for getting the global community to where it needs to be from a sustainability perspective, but they are only part of the story. To drive exponential change (i.e.: zero waste, zero hunger, net zero emissions) — which is the level of transformation the world needs in today’s complex sustainability landscape — businesses need to think responsibly at each stage of the value chain.
It’s important to not get overwhelmed by the exponential concept — we need to transform how the global business community approaches sustainability, but that doesn’t mean we’ll solve the world’s issues all at once. There’s tremendous value in taking incremental steps — those that may seem small at first, but are incredibly important because they end up having the greatest impact — and the opportunity to take these steps lie most often in the supply chain.
The Supply Chain’s Role in Furthering – or Inhibiting – Sustainability
According to McKinsey, a company’s supply chain creates a much greater environmental cost than its own operations, accounting for more than 80 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions and more than 90 percent of the impact on resources like air, land, water, biodiversity and more. But just like you can’t drop fifty pounds overnight, a company can’t snap its fingers and become a sustainable organization. A person working toward a healthier lifestyle would likely see tangible weight loss results while working with a personal trainer that consistently monitors their progress and helps them take steps toward a healthier lifestyle every day, and the same applies for businesses.
No organization can expect to see results immediately when it comes to sustainability programs, but with simple, incremental steps and the right tools, guidance and improvement plans, businesses can scale sustainability efforts and drive exponential change that not only impacts their own profitability and growth, but the world as well.
Take a complex issue like climate change, for example. Starting with setting and working toward science-based targets, with joint commitment from suppliers and partners, goes a long way to drive the transformational change required to keep the world’s temperature increase below two degrees Celsius. Setting these intentions and putting sustainability at the center of a company’s procurement and supply chain strategy also strengthens long-term business resilience and competitiveness by driving better business practices, cost savings, innovation and more.
The Continuous Steps Toward Big Impact
There’s a dire need for the business community to reframe the conversation on how we drive sustainability impact. Organizations should embrace the idea and practice of continuous improvement towards bold goals to create exponential change that has real, lasting impact – even if incremental steps are taken one at a time. Since it can be challenging to drive sustainability in the supply chain due to a general lack of visibility and heightened exposure to critical risks, it’s crucial to find simple, achievable steps that build off each other to answer some of the most complex issues and help teams not bite off more than they can chew.
According to the 2019 CDP Supply Chain Report, one-third of suppliers are driving upstream change in the supply chain. This is an important finding because the more supply chain and procurement participants engage with their partners on key sustainability issues and iteratively encourage better practices, the cascading impact on the rest of the global supply chain is tremendous. The report also finds that the fundamental steps for managing supply chain risks, impacts and capturing opportunities for sustainable value creation are common across all organizations: understanding, planning and implementing. When these simple, incremental steps are applied to a sustainability issue, problems can be confronted with a laser focus and clear path to resolution. The end result: learning and adapting continuously – a major key to becoming a more sustainable company, since operating a business today is anything but linear.
Understanding and measuring resource impacts, risks and opportunities are important to developing a sustainable supply chain program – but it’s also important for protecting operations and limit the amount of costly disruptions as much as possible.
The Importance of Learning Along the Way
When a company drives sustainable change in one area of their supply chain, the end result is constant learning. Effective supply chain sustainability programs develop and adapt as organizations learn from the outcomes of their new courses of action. By learning through successes or mistakes made in rapid iteration or piloting, strategies can be updated to work better – and this is especially important when organizations and their partners drive changes that greatly impact business models and the overall organization.
More and more companies are committing to driving exponential change, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed or caught up in the hype without a clear plan of how to attain bold goals. Practically speaking, smaller changes that map to bigger goals are not only manageable to implement but they also drive big results.
Leaders should remember to slow down, focus on one thing at a time, and follow incremental steps to get to where they want to go. In making these strides, businesses can set forth on a rewarding journey to sustainable transformation.
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