How to Build a Sustainable Supply Chain

“I haven’t seen any one of you explain the supply chain very well. No, no, I’m not being critical. I’m being deadly earnest. When your editor says, ‘Explain the supply chain.’ Okay? ‘Lots of luck in your senior year,’ as my coach used to say.”  — Remarks to the press corps by President Biden on Passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal

There are things we know about the supply chain. There are many things unknown. One thing we’re certain of is that the global supply chain crisis continues to evolve in a kaleidoscope of unexpected ways.

We’re familiar at this point with the major challenges surrounding the supply chain. We understand that the stories about supply chain disruptions have essentially gone hand in hand with the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the disrupted supply chain now features enshrined talking points. We all know them, right? First it was microchips. Then toilet paper. The eCommerce boom. Sideways container ships. Those darn backlogged ports. Longshoremen in Long Beach. War in Ukraine. $5 gas. Historic inflation. Baby formula.

Many things have been disrupted, big and small. It’s no stretch for me to guess things have been disrupted in your life. It goes without saying, so we bear things in silence. There’s been a host of personal disruptions hoisted upon our shoulders. What do we do?

We set our jaws. We set our sights on a brighter future. And we get back to work, taking it one day at a time.

And we can’t just keep putting out the small fires. We must keep fighting for long-term sustainability goals. But we also can’t just work harder. We must use our resources, energy, time, and tools to work smarter.

The Supply Chain’s Role in Sustainability Goals

Today, we’re looking at the issue of sustainability. How can we make progress toward global supply chain sustainability initiatives in a time of crisis? Is progress possible right now? If so, how? What can global supply chains and local supply chains do to help? Take a deep breath; we’re diving in!

First and foremost, note that sustainability can mean more than combatting climate change.

To be specific, in 2015, the UN General Assembly established its sustainable development goals (SDGs). These are a “collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a ‘blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.'”

The target for achieving the SDGs is 2030. Unfortunately, progress on the SDGs slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly, slower progress has been a byproduct of the supply chain crisis as well (see baby formula).

So to try and understand these issues, let’s review the list of 17 SDGs. But while doing so, note how many goals appear to rely on global supply chains for success.

The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

For additional reading, extensive information about the SDGs can be found here.

1.End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

2. End hunger. Achieve food security, improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all, at all ages.

4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education. And promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.

8. Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth. Full and productive employment. Decent work for all.

9. Build resilient infrastructure. Promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.

10. Reduce inequality within and among countries.

11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.

12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.

15. Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems. Sustainably manage forests. Combat desertification. Halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development. Provide access to justice for all. Build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.

17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.

The Supply Chain Game of Whack-a-Mole

To be fair, the 17 SDGs have received some criticism. Some feel they are too all-encompassing or even contradictory. But personally, I’m fine with an all-inclusive to-do list. Set your sights high, they told us.

And I find that when facing any complex issue, the best first step is that listicle. We need visibility first and foremost. We need to shine a light on the blind spots and search for the root cause of issues, especially when we’re facing something as all-encompassing and complex as sustainability.

Admittedly, this won’t be easy. And yes, perhaps progress toward SDG success slowed during the supply chain crisis because we weren’t focused enough.

For example, say you had to explain the supply chain crisis to a child (or Biden’s press corps)? It might be easiest to compare it to a game of whack-a-mole. We identify a problem. We take a swing at that problem. But we’re just a bit too late. Or hey! We hit it on the head this time! Good work. But either way, don’t relax. Because before we can take a breath, we’re sure to have another issue rear up its fuzzy head.

On the other hand, those of us on the tenure track in the supply chain industry can confirm something. This is pretty much how it’s always been! The day-to-day grind of supply chain logistics has always been a game of whack-a-mole.

So how do we rekindle and fortify progress? What do we focus on first?

First Priority: Get Some Breathing Room

“This is a confusing time. But I promise—I promise the American people: I have one focus, “How do we give you some breathing room?  How do we get you to the point where we take pressure off you so you can begin to get back to a degree of normality and we move to a different place?” — Remarks by President Biden on Passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal

It’s noteworthy that President Biden emphasized “breathing room” in his address.

Sustainability initiatives are hard enough to pursue in good economic times, let alone when things take a dip. Thus, Biden’s focus on breathing room is quite intuitive. But what does that mean exactly? We know what breathing room is—and what it feels like when we don’t have it. A lack of breathing room means the molehill is turning into a mountain.

Unfortunately, when we lack breathing room, sustainability takes on new meaning. It reverts back to sustenance. Sustaining until the next paycheck. Searching for the next meal or tub of baby formula becomes the only goal.

Most Americans know what it feels like when money gets tight. But I think most Americans don’t really understand that’s how the pandemic era has felt for entire countries. According to the SDG executive summary, “Low-income developing countries (LIDCs) lack the fiscal space to finance emergency response and investment-led recovery plans aligned with the SDGs.”

Indeed, it’s safe to say that many people, countries, and businesses struggled to sustain through the post-pandemic era supply chain crisis.

But there were also some bright spots, right? Something had to have worked at some level? Let’s identify that. Specifically, let’s identify what worked best about what worked.

Focus on What Worked Best, Then Keep Scaling

I’d argue that only two things kept supply chains going during the crisis: guts and tech.

When the world started going into lockdown, it took guts from countless folks around the globe to actually keep things going. Perhaps this again was that human need for sustenance kicking in. But we’re still here, bad as things may seem in certain ways, because people got the job done.

In many instances, people were able to get the job done solely because of technological innovations. For the general working population, this might have meant Zoom meetings. In terms of the supply chain, it meant visibility. (There’s that word again.)

What are the tools that create supply chain visibility? These are tech innovations like digitization software, real-time GPS tracking, IoT and RFID, control towers, and AI efficiency enhancements.

So tech has kept the supply chain afloat. There are laggards, but tech and the digital revolution are where progress has been made. In terms of baby formula shortages, tech will allow manufacturing companies to manage a more complex, diverse, and anti-fragile supply chain. Put another way, single-sourcing is brittle. With the baby formula supply chain, we literally see how single-sourcing harms our future.

We must invest in the future. We must keep integrating the tools of tech that work. We already integrate it so much into our personal lives. So what holds us back from integrating more advanced tech into our business processes? This is ultimately how we build a sustainable supply chain.

Sustainable Digitization: Do More With Less

At a high level, if we’re going to achieve a sustainable supply chain or any of the 17 SDGs it will be because we’ve been able to do more with less. That means tech. We must follow the tech that has shown legitimate promise for the logistics and supply chain industries, and then scale.

In my opinion, one simple action item any business should take is due diligence into digitization. If digitization can help the supply chain get better at whack-a-mole, maybe it can help build sustainable momentum for the 17 SDGs.

In summary, it feels a little like senior year just came and went, and we just landed in the real world. So first and foremost, let’s all collectively take a deep breath. It’ll be okay. We got the guts. And we’re getting the tech. The supply chain got us into this mess. And it’ll get us out.

Just keep truckin’.

This post was written by Brian Deines. Brian believes that every day is a referendum on a brand’s relevance, and he’s excited to bring that kind of thinking to the world of modern manufacturing and logistics. He deploys a full-stack of business development, sales, and marketing tools built through years of work in the logistics, packaging, and tier-1 part supply industries serving a customer base comprised of Fortune 1000 OEMs.

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