Sustainability is a critical issue for many businesses, fueled by growing internal and external pressure to measure and strengthen environmental, social, and governance (ESG) practices. As companies seek to improve their ESG performance, supply chain management is also under scrutiny.
ESG issues relate to the supply chain in many ways. For example, companies are vulnerable to risk from the actions of their suppliers involving issues that include child labor, employee safety, and corruption and bribery. Supplier problems in those areas can create reputational damage for companies and even subject them to compliance and legal risks.
The environmental component of ESG is particularly relevant to the supply chain, which typically includes carbon-heavy activities such as transportation and production. The supply chain may drive as much as 90% of a company’s total carbon impact on the environment, according to the EPA. So there’s a lot of room for sustainability-related improvement in supply chains. This is driving a greater focus on companies’ so-called “Scope 3” emissions—those created externally, by other companies outside of the organization.
But it’s important to recognize that sustainability is no longer just a corporate-responsibility or compliance issue. It’s also a good business practice.
A Window into ESG Vulnerabilities
The key reason why sustainability has become more important to business is because it’s under scrutiny by a growing range of stakeholders. Studies show that U.S. consumers prefer sustainable brands and products, and employees are increasingly likely to say they would prefer to work at companies with strong environmental and social agendas. Institutional investors are also on board, and by 2025, some $53 trillion—about one-third of the dollars under professional management globally—is expected to be in ESG funds, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.
Altogether, this means that sustainability is now playing a big role in meeting customer expectations, attracting and retaining employees, and accessing capital. Improving supply chain sustainability can help ensure that a company finds favor with these stakeholders.
But greater sustainability can also help improve supply chains because it goes hand-in-hand with reduced risk and increased efficiency. Sustainability and efforts to cut carbon emissions typically mean using less raw material, reducing energy and water consumption, and cutting the amount of waste that needs to be processed — actions that help reduce costs and accelerate operations. Tracking ESG data also provides a better window into potential vulnerabilities in the supply chain. And companies that put efforts into supply chain sustainability are likely to find it easier to forge relationships with quality partners who are looking to improve their own supply chain ESG performance.
“Supply chain agility and resilience are inseparable from the drive for sustainability,” a recent report from The Conference Board noted. “Building sustainable practices into supply chains has direct business benefits. It helps companies manage business risks, achieve cost savings through material efficiency gains, enhance brand reputation, create growth opportunities, and manage suppliers more effectively. Harmful environmental practices and inhumane working conditions not only pose reputational risk but also direct disruption risk.”
In the end, supply chain sustainability should not be seen as a burden or peripheral issue. Instead, it’s fast becoming something that is central to sound supply chain management. And it is another area where the supply chain can make a big contribution to competitiveness—and to the health of the planet.