They say a leopard can’t change its spots but if they could, how would they change them? What color would the spots be? Would they even want to change them at all? While these are purely hypothetical questions, the phrase “a leopard can never change its spots” has got me thinking how this also applies to world of supply chains.
However, let’s start by addressing what supply chains have in common with leopards. While the shape, size and how many spots a leopard has varies from leopard to leopard, all leopards have spots. The same applies to the supply chain. Each individual supply chain is different. They consist of different firms, products and suppliers but the basic concept of the supply chain is considered to be the same across all products.
The phrase “a leopard can never change its spots” is used to suggest that it is impossible for someone or something to change its innate nature, no matter how hard they try. Could the same be suggested for supply chains when it comes to sustainability?
For example, it could be suggested that the very nature of the supply chain is not sustainable. The supply chain begins with sourcing raw materials which need to be transported to the production site – creating waste emissions. Then the production process itself creates waste. After that, the product is transported from production plant to consumer – logistics, which means more waste emissions. It doesn’t end there. There will come a point when the product is no longer needed or wanted by the consumer and is thrown away – waste. This chain of events has become ingrained into the supply chain over many years and thus could be very difficult or even near impossible to change.
Why even try to change then?
Consumer demand. Due to the increased presence and support for climate change action groups or the news coverage of the Australian Bush fires and the burning of the Amazon rainforest, the public has an increased awareness of the effects of climate change and has called for action.
Businesses have since responded with various pledges about how they are intending to make their supply chains more sustainable. Yet, while this appears to be a step in the right direction, there are already examples of where sustainability pledges have been missed. For example, both Nestlé and Procter & Gamble announced that they wouldn’t be able to meet their 2020 deforestation goals, which were set back in 2010. From that arises the question: Are these pledges just too unrealistic to meet due to the very nature of processes that are ingrained in supply chains?
Are sustainable supply chains really possible?
You probably wonder how I can come to that conclusion so quickly despite being somewhat skeptical at the start of my blog post. Well, I believe that it is always possible for change to occur. However, change doesn’t happen by itself. It usually requires hard work and a lot of persistence as the process normally isn’t easy.
When trying to make changes in your supply chain, current practices and processes have usually been in place for many months or even years, so they cannot just be changed overnight. There’s also a lot of factors to consider which may include current contracts, finding new suppliers or even changing manufacturing processes. This can often be time consuming. It’s also not even guaranteed that the right solution will be found in the first run.
Especially in terms of supply chain sustainability, there may not only be one process that needs changing in order to be fully sustainable. While this may appear overwhelming at first, if you break it down to one process at a time, it will become more manageable.
Here are just a few of the areas, that businesses could consider (as a starting point) to become more sustainable.
The supply chain begins with the sourcing of raw materials, a process that can be made sustainable. Sustainable sourcing/procurement is defined by the United Nations as taking into account the environmental and social factors – and not just the financial factors -when procuring raw materials. Some ways that a firm could achieve this is by: ensuring that it only obtains its raw materials from certified sources; imposing conditions on and/ or closely auditing suppliers to ensure sustainable sourcing.
Most products are made up of many different parts that are produced in different factories. Often, a different assembly production line will then create the final product. This not only creates emissions due to the logistics involved in the shipping but also the production process itself is not so sustainable. The production process creates a lot of waste most simply due to rejects that have not met quality standards. When you consider the fact that parts will be rejected at every stage of the production process, that’s a lot of waste.
Investing into reverse logistics, is one way businesses can be more sustainable not only from a logistics but also from a production point of view. Reverse logistics refers to the idea of taking waste materials and returned products and turning them into goods which can be resold – thus resulting in less being sent to landfills.
For example, one company which already has a successful reverse logistics process is Apple. The company offers the option for you to trade in your old iPhone when upgrading. The returned iPhone then gets sent to their production facilities where they use parts from previous models in their newer products. A process that not only offers them to be more sustainable but also saves money on production costs.
As we all know, most businesses’ production facilities and their consumers are not located in the same area. As a result, logistics is an important process in the supply chain – but also one that is often not so “green” due to the high amount of emissions.
The majority of vehicles used in the logistics process are powered by gas or diesel, which release significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. For example in 2017, freight was responsible for 40% of total transport emissions and with International Transport Forum’s (ITF) Transport Outlook 2017 predicting that freight transportation demand will triple by 2050, so will the amounts of emissions produced unless change is made.
While the more environmentally friendly alternative would be to change to electric vehicles, there are simply not enough of these vehicles or charging points yet to make this viable. An alternative is considering green logistics processes. For example, by carrying out effective planning to minimize empty runs, a business can not only become more sustainable but also potentially more cost effective.
Evolution may one day change the spots of a leopard . However, while leopards might not be able to change their spots in the 21st Century, supply chains certainly will eventually evolve to be sustainable. Ultimately, nature will decide if leopards will have spots or not but we can control how the supply chain evolves. However, this is not going to happen overnight or all in one go. The best way to achieve it – in my opinion – is by taking one step or process at a time and by setting realistic and achievable goals. As they say, don’t run before you can walk.
How are you making your supply chain more sustainable? What measures do you think businesses should take to achieve supply chain sustainability?
Header photo: Freder- Getty Images