Supply chain sustainability is a nice idea, but there are a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to the finer details. So, while genuine progress has been made, there are also a lot of businesses whose commitment to a sustainable supply chain is questionable.
When McDonald’s says it wants to start serving “sustainable beef,” this sounds great. The supply chain for meat is one of the biggest causes of climate change, so anything that one of the world’s biggest purchasers of beef can do to make their supply chain more sustainable should be welcomed and applauded.
The issue comes with the self-regulation of McDonald’s “sustainable beef,” as well as the fact that “sustainable beef” is a term that the company has come up with itself. While it is encouraging to see McDonald’s promise to eliminate deforestation from its supply chain, exactly how else McDonald’s beef will be sustainable remains to be seen.
McDonald’s sets benchmarks for many industries, so there is a lot that can be learned from the company’s successes — as well as its failures — with regards to sustainability. In lieu of tough regulation from governments, we need companies to set targets for themselves by which the public and the media can measure them. Striving for "no deforestation in the McDonald’s supply chain by 2020" is a measurable target, but aiming to have "more sustainable beef" is neither specific enough nor truly measurable.
Waste, Wastewater and Pollution
The economics of scale is the principle behind almost every business on the planet, yet its major flaw is waste. When buying in such quantities, the risk of leftover waste increases exponentially. Recycling is an absolute must because the aim shouldn’t be waste reduction; the aim should be zero waste.
Wastewater can be recycled, waste can be recycled and emissions can be reduced to zero...all it takes is imagination and the will to do so. Elon Musk has proven that this is the case. The adventurous entrepreneur has built a solar-powered battery able to give electricity to an entire town in Australia and is also developing electric-powered delivery vehicles. These two inventions could help supply chains the world over to develop zero-emission factories with zero-emission transport. Those two inventions alone could completely cut emissions from a huge chunk of the global supply chain. What’s lacking is the investment and the belief in Musk’s ideas.
This is hardly surprising. Eco-friendly entrepreneurs like Musk have their own version of economics, where the aim isn’t to make as much money as possible but to use his company’s profits to make as much positive impact on the world as possible. It might sound hokey, yet it makes sense that the kind of people ambitious enough to make billions of dollars would also be ambitious enough to commit to such lofty aims.
It’s not just Musk. Entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have amassed fortunes while simultaneously attempting to change the world. Of course, this change is not always welcome. As Zuckerberg learned in India, there is a fine line between philanthropy and neo-imperialism.
Things Smaller Businesses Can Do
Away from the machinations of billionaires, what can small to medium businesses do to create more sustainable supply chains? To begin with, it depends on your industry. Reducing carbon emissions might be the aim and there are many ways in which the future of warehousing or the future of shipping could be more sustainable.
However, to run a small business with zero emissions, you need to build the business from scratch, with the idea of zero emissions at the center of what you do. Of course, at some point, you’re going to run into the issue of transport. Without a zero-emission transport system such as the one Musk is developing, you’ll have to resort to whatever you can find.
There are a lot of things that all businesses can do to make supply chains more sustainable...there are a lot of things that governments can do to make supply chains more sustainable...and there are a lot of things that customers can do to influence both groups. What’s more, in some ways, decision-makers at small businesses are also waiting on big businesspeople like Musk to make a sustainable supply chain possible for everyone. In short, the job of supply chain sustainability is everyone’s, meaning everyone has a role to play.