Why sustainable supply chains are critical

Conversation about environmental practices and the behaviour of individuals and businesses when it comes to sustainability are making headlines. The City of Johannesburg announced a new programme compelling residents to separate waste at its source as of 1 July to not only curb the environmental impact within the city, but also manage rapidly decreasing landfill space.

Retail giant PnP trialled a programme within its V&A Waterfront, Cape Town store which saw the replacement of all plastic bags with compostable bags and boxes, kick-starting its intention to implement this more broadly in years to come. With local changes such as these, research conducted by supply chain organisation Barloworld Logistics could not be more relevant to South African businesses and consumers.

Now in its 15th year, supply chain foresight is an industry standard in qualitative research and a critical thought leadership piece on business strategy and supply chains in South Africa. The latest edition reviews opinions of South African business leaders regarding adoption of sustainable business practices within supply chains. It also garners insight into the psyche of local supply chain leaders when it comes to environmental practices.

‘Research may be topical at the moment, but adopting sustainable business practices is more than a conversation piece or marketing slogan,’ says Sarah Lubbe, senior marketing and PR manager at Barloworld Logistics. ‘There is an urgent need, driven by environmental awareness and consumer demand, to place strategic weight behind the sustainability agenda to make real strides, whether within local business or on a global scale.’

Research found as many as two-thirds of respondents adopted some environmental policy within their organisations, but such practices are considered to be tick-box exercises driven by compliance requirements and not real value creating activities. Respondents also highlighted a lack of resources and subdued C-suite support as main hurdles when attempting to move the topic into the operational DNA of an organisation.

‘Lingering opinion that environmental practices are a grudge cost within local organisations is a short-sighted view,’ Lubbe argues. ‘Mainstream, empirical evidence shows that our natural resources require urgent care and attention. Growing change in consumer behaviour also emphasises the ethical nature of products, in some cases above price considerations. These factors create a need to examine every aspect of a product’s value chain should organisations want to retain, or grow market share over the long-term.’

Data indicates local businesses are adopting tactical waste management and emissions programmes, but these are reactive. Respondents reported low adoption of sustainable practices within research and development, manufacturing and raw material sourcing. If the footprint of a product is not mitigated at the start, the cost and waste burden of these at their end-of-life will continue to hamper local public and private sectors, individuals and the natural environment.

The report should be food for thought for everyone – personally and professionally. ‘If we continue to produce, use and discard products in the way we always have, even in an environmentally acceptable manner, we will soon face the reality of a world drowning in its own waste, where raw materials have run out, and our lives are changed forever,’ Lubbe states. ‘It is no longer good enough to have a policy over the door, or a statement on a website that claims green behaviour. We all need to review our products, our supply chains, our suppliers, indeed every step within the lifespan of a product, to make sure it treads softly, moves cleanly and leaves little trace behind. Only through coordinated, committed action will we be able to be the companies, the industries and the people who leave a better legacy than we inherited.’