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Sustainable supply chain: a new business challenge

Nowadays, companies are increasingly scrutinized by various audience (e.g., NGOs, Social Media) and are held responsible for environmental and social performance of their suppliers (e.g., Apple, 2006; Nike 2007; Mattel, 2007; Victoria’s Secret, 2011). This is the life cycle perspective: products (and the company that is manufacturing them) cannot be truly defined sustainable whether purchased components are not designed and produced in a sustainable way.

A recent post on software advice discusses the “conversations that must occur within supply chain … to become synonymous with … socially-responsible business”. The post focuses on three main points:

  • Measuring sustainability performance: as described by Wal-Mart, indexing environmental and social performance throughout the supply chain is essential to instill sustainability into suppliers, lead higher quality and lower costs, and to help customers in their buying decisions;
  • Developing trust and value-added relationships along the value chain: when a sustainable supply chain has to be developed, ensuring the quality of the product and the sustainability of the operational process might be as much of an issue as building partnerships and prescribe suppliers’ commitment;
  • Innovating toward sustainability: addressing sustainability further upstream – at the level of product and components design – can lead to an improved sustainability as well as costs savings. A good example for that is the case of Ikea: they are looking to replace wood pallets with cardboard ones. The company expects to reduce its carbon footprint and cut its transport bills by 140 million Euro a year (look at this recent post).

However, the above conversions are difficult to develop and “supply chain management” is actually the least area in which sustainability has been integrated  (i.e., McKinsey survey, Exhibit 2). First, measuring sustainability is not so straightforward: on one hand it increases upstream competition (e.g., look at the post “Indexing sustainability” by The Operation Room), and on the other new criteria and assessment procedures have to be developed (e.g., look at the post “Sustainability index hiccups” by The Operation Room). Then,  the evolution of sourcing strategies and the inclusion of sustainability requires a transitory period necessary for companies to change  the focus of their actions (e.g., from a focus on products and suppliers to a focus on relationships and supplier networks in a long-term perspective; from the procurement of standardized inputs to joint-value creation methodologies). For instance, according to a recent post by Harvard Business Review, “nowadays innovation partnerships with vendors don’t yet represent a procurement priority” and “business world  innovations occurs when we bypass or disintermediate  procurement … this is somewhat contrasting: vendor/partners — who are compensated by procurement — end up having to explain away or conceal the bootleg or graymarket innovation projects they’re billing for … This dynamic is unsustainable… procurement has to become a genuine facilitator, enabler and champion of the innovation ecosystem”.

Thus, to effectively pursue the above supply chain conversions, companies need a transitory period for developing new capabilities (note that, according to exhibit 5 of McKinsey survey, three of the barriers that prevent companies from capturing potential value from sustainability initiatives are: the lack of key performance indicators, insufficient resources and lack of right capabilities and/or skills).

Sustainable supply chain management (SSCM) is also increasingly debated by academicians: more than three hundred papers were published on such issues during the last decade (e.g., Seuring and Müller, 2008). During the conference organized by the International purchasing and supply Education and Research Association (i.e., 2012 IPSERA conference), 17 papers (out of 124) were presented that deal with supply chain sustainability, witnessing that the academic community is greatly interested to the topic. Among the others, the empirical research that has won the 2012 IPSERA best paper award (i.e., Golini et al., 2012) offers relevant contributions on supply chain conversions and the role of companies’ supply management capabilities. Specifically, the paper points out that, although internal investments (e.g., initiatives to improve social reputation as well as initiatives to reduce energy consumption and waste of internal operations) represent the first step toward sustainability, industrial firms should then focus on supply chain management investments (e.g., restructuring the supply base, improving suppliers’ selection, development and coordination) and sustainable supply chain management initiatives (e.g., monitoring CSR of upstream partners, developing life cycle analysis involving suppliers) since they significantly contribute to firms’ sustainability performance. On one hand, SCM investments help in (1) improving companies’ ability to manage strategic supply relationships for sustainability and innovation (2) increasing visibility and reducing moral hazard within supply chain, as well as (3) improving cooperation and inter-organizational learning among partners. On the other, SSCM initiatives entail problem-solving routine involving suppliers and can instill additional capabilities in the company’s organization.

Concluding, supply chain sustainability seems to be the new business challenge: it represents a big opportunity for companies to improve their footprint and to increase their competitive advantage. Nevertheless, firms should wonder whether they hold the right level of resources and capabilities before to rely on SSCM investments.



Seuring, S. and M. Müller (2008). From a literature review to a conceptual framework for sustainable supply chain management. Journal of Cleaner Production 16, 1699-1710.

Golini, R., Gualandris, J., Kalchschmidt, M., 2012. Sustainable supply chain management: the role of supply chain management investments and of Global sourcing. IPSERA proceedings ISBN 978-88-495-2346-1, April 2012 Naples (I).


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