4 Myths of Sustainable Supply Chains

Does the sustainable supply chain exist? And, if it does, what is it?

Green Supply Chain
Sustainable Supply Chain. Getty Images

We’ve seen the footprints in the snow, but has anyone ever tracked down the elusive Yeti? Ripples on a cold lake and grainy black-and-white photos – but where’s the proof that Nessie exists? And, sure, we’ve all read the articles and witnessed the supply chain panels wax on about the necessity of sustainable supply chains, but – be honest now – have you ever seen one in real life?

Myth #1 – Companies want sustainable supply chains.

 Why Myth #1 is a myth: People want sustainability. Companies want profits. And while it makes great PR to say that your company is committed creating a sustainable supply chain – press releases and sustainable supply chain implementation are two completely different things. 

Anyone who’s ever been involved in a large-scale change management project knows what kind of heavy lifting is needed to get one up and keep it moving. And when the change is a to a company’s global supply chain – that very function that controls your cost of goods, your logistics and transportation spend, your inventory dollars, etc. – well, those are real dollars you’re starting to impact. If you’ve already got an optimized supply chain – and everyone’s currently happy with your COGS and your customer delivery – who’s going to have the force of will to change it? And if you don’t have an optimized supply chain, who’s going to say, “Let’s not optimize the supply chain, let’s make it sustainable instead!”

Okay, let’s say you’ve made it past that massive hurdle. Next up, someone’s going to have to create a budget for your supply chain sustainability and then another someone (usually with “Finance” in their job title) is going to realize what it’s going to cost to make that change happen. Time and money.

What do you think most companies don’t want to spend because doing so would take away from their profits?  You got it – time and money. 

So it’s easy to issue the press release and appoint a head of sustainability, but many companies don’t give their sustainability person (or team, if they’re really feeling ambitious) any budget or influence or teeth. And when a CFO has to make a decision between spending money on “green” or spending money on capital with a tangible ROI – green usually loses out.

Myth #2 – Everyone who does want a sustainable supply chain is working to get one. Not every company is going to want a sustainable supply chain. But the companies with a collective social conscience, a long-term worldview, and a true desire to make their supply chain sustainable – those companies are making it happen, right?

Uh… in all probability, no. But why? If it’s something they really want, why aren’t they doing it? Look, remember when everyone thought “Cupcake Wednesday” was a really good idea? So, for a couple weeks, everyone brought in gourmet cupcakes to share in the break room after lunch? It was the best. It kept morale up. But then, one Wednesday, there was that crisis and the last minute all-hands meeting trumped the cupcake break.

Then the next week, Becca, who makes THE BEST maple and brown sugar cupcakes, was on vacation, so everyone agreed to punt Cupcake Wednesday to the following Wednesday, which didn’t happen. And then one day, you realized you hadn’t had a cupcake in months.  Without top-down leadership and a committed project team, something as simple and awesome as Cupcake Wednesday died of its own accord. Now imagine the Herculean effort it takes to re-construct your global supply chain. That’s why. It takes the vision and strategic direction of your company’s leadership, along with a passionate and committed project team – and a realistically managed timeline.  And the first time a crisis threatens to derail the project, everyone involved has to keep the project going. 

Myth #3 – Sustainable supply chains are expensive.

 The definition of “sustainable” should completely debunk Myth #3. To drive supply chain sustainability means to drive your ability to sustain your supply chain over time. One of the best ways to do that is to eliminate waste (and the cost of that waste) from your supply chain. Make your supply chain sustainable by eliminating expense. You can consolidate your shipping and optimize your production processes and raw material purchases – all of which helps your supply chain become sustainable and less expensive. 

Myth #4 – Only the food industry really benefits from sustainable supply chains. Yes, sustainable agriculture, fishing practices, and livestock management will create supply chains that prevent the depletion of our food. But non-food industries can invest in solar power (try your warehouses and production facilities). And the waste reduction initiatives that debunk Myth #3 are not confined to the food industry. All supply chains can benefit from sustainability efforts. As you work to optimize your supply chain, look at sustainability as an approach to drive cost and waste out of your processes.