The whole chain

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Science  06 Jun 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6188, pp. 1108
DOI: 10.1126/science.1256025

A commercial port town on the East China Sea, a bustling manufacturing city in Ireland, and a scenic city on the Mediterranean coast—what ties together these regions and their people, economies, and environments? They could be part of a product's supply chain. Because the global economy rests on the maintenance of such chains, there needs to be a shift in perspective, from considering supply chains as isolated parts to optimizing them as sustainable wholes. The good news is that academia, industry, government, and civil society organizations recognize this and are seeking ways to work together to achieve sustainability across supply chains.

Decisions made by a product's designers and supply-chain managers affect the sustainability of each region that is touched by its supply chain. Consider the journey of a laptop computer, from cradle to grave. Its supply chain includes companies that mine metals and extract petroleum; manufacture the electrical and plastic components; assemble the final product; sell the computer to consumers; and, in a circular economy, recycle the device. Clearly, being part of a supply chain brings great economic opportunity to a region, but it presents challenges as well: Energy is required to run factories, water and land are demanded, and more waste must be managed. According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, roughly half of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States can be linked to the supply chains of consumer products. For the laptop, factory programs could reduce the electrical demand and greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing components, and the manufacturer could design the computer to be energy-efficient. But the ultimate goal is to coordinate such efforts all along the computer's supply chain, not implement them in isolation. What is being done to achieve this?


Science is key to holistically managing sustainable supply chains. Scientific methods such as life-cycle assessment can be used to study where improvement efforts should be concentrated. In many cases, the largest social and environmental impacts are not from the product manufacturers themselves but from their upstream suppliers or downstream consumers. For example, the manufacturers of clothing, laundry detergent, and clothes-washing machines could each work independently to reduce electricity consumption at their and their suppliers' plants. They would make far more progress in reducing global electricity consumption, however, by accommodating cold-water washing of clothes by consumers. Science also can highlight the complex tradeoffs that exist between different product solutions. Biobased materials may provide benefit through recycling or composting, but the impacts associated with growing the biomaterial have to be compared to the impacts from other materials' supply chains. And science provides an objective language for decision-makers to prioritize issues and measure and track progress. For example, because scientific studies of logistics-related transportation indicate that emissions from fuel combustion are the largest source of environmental impact, transportation carriers have worked with government, academia, and civil society to develop programs that enable public reporting of greenhouse gas emissions by carriers. This gives carriers incentives to improve and gives buyers of carrier services better information for making decisions. Because transportation logistics are a part of all product supply chains, these improvements have holistic impact.

“Science is key to holistically managing sustainable supply chains.”


Competing companies have similar elements in their supply chains and may compete for the same suppliers and customers. Thus, improving supply-chain sustainability eventually requires a shift to precompetitive collaboration. The Sustainability Consortium (www.sustainabilityconsortium.org), for instance, brings together stakeholders across different industry sectors and supply-chain stages to jointly prioritize product sustainability issues and create common indicators to measure and report sustainability performance. Science enables these precompetitive collaborations to be fact-based rather than opinion-based. This kind of interaction should help bring a “whole-chain” view into better focus.

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