For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.
“There is no point in wishing the complexity away—it’s already here…” My colleague Lorraine Smith wrote this while assessing the state of transparency in the corporate sector today, evoking a thread that ties far-flung supply chain crises erupting in 2013–from the apparel sector’s Rana Plaza factory collapse to the food and retail sector’s horse meat contamination scandal. Technology to trace product supply chains from source to store has emerged strongly in 2013 as a pathway to understand and address the complexity, while foreshadowing its potential future role as an enabler of collaboration within and across companies’ value chains.
In terms of technology as a pathway, beef and lamb producers from Scotland to New Zealand are piloting meat fingerprinting by examining a farm’s soil, grass, water and air where the animals were reared to verify provenance. Meanwhile, in the US, where about one-third of seafood sold by retailers and restaurants in the US is mislabelled, the FDA is working with the industry to increase DNA testing of fish. A few notable corporate initiatives we followed this year included Starbucks teaming up with GeoCertify, tagging coffee beans in Ethiopia and tracing them through their supply chain; Brooks Brothers and Supima, among others in the apparel industry, using DNA testing to verify the high-quality cotton it was purchasing; and Unilever, which announced its goal to achieve 100% certified and traceable palm oil by 2020, aided by a new palm kernel fractionation facility in Indonesia. Finally, one unintended consequence of the drive for more traceability has been excluding smallholder farmers from multinational supply chains because they are more difficult and/or more expensive to trace. Enter the Syngenta Foundation’s mobile phone-based agricultural app which will launch across Africa and provide smallholder traceability for aggregators that sell on to multinationals.
New tools are also being employed to increase visibility into labor practices in global supply chains. Marks & Spencer has announced it will use Labor Link’s mobile technology, designed to amplify workers’ voices in the apparel supply chain, to gather feedback directly from 22,500 workers in its clothing supply chains in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, while Patagonia uses the Labor Link platform to check on factory working conditions at the raw material level in India.
More broadly, the potential of ‘mainstreaming’ traceability is to move beyond risk mitigation, the accelerant for many companies’ traceability experiments and investments, into being a lever for value chain collaboration. For instance, having an exceedingly accurate and detailed map of one supply chain in the industry makes it that much easier to see the overlaps and areas for partnership in others’ supply chains. With increasing awareness and frustration that established auditing protocols and even certification systems are ill-equipped to eliminate the possibility of the next sourcing scandal, let alone enable livelihood improvements in supply chain communities, companies will increasingly use this emerging mosaic to locate where intra as well as inter-industry collaboration is possible.