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Our Insights 30 Aug 2013

On Our Radar: Tracing Food and Clothes & Charting Business Leadership Paths

By Rida Bilgrami

Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. Image: P.S.Lu via Flickr

Between traditional news channels, blogs, and social media, it can be hard to keep up with what’s making waves in the field of sustainable development. In this roundup we aim to cut through the noise with a handful of highlights that have caught our eye.

Traceability in Food and Apparel Sectors

Two sectors recently tainted by supply chain scandals–apparel and food–are also witnessing a surge in traceability and transparency in an effort to communicate more openly and transparently with stakeholders.

The emergence of companies that are promoting traceability and transparency in the apparel supply chain through digital platforms, including Everlane, Honest-By, and SumAll, has been complemented by the newly launched Zady, an online shopping portal that uses icons to convey to consumers if a garment is locally sourced, made from high-quality raw materials, or environmentally conscious. While the co-founders research the practices of every brand included on the site and have visited some factories, in many cases they rely on the brands to disclose the information, requiring owners to sign contracts verifying the authenticity of their claims about sourcing and production.

A joint project between NPR and This American Life, the Planet Money podcast, is running a traceability experiment documenting the story of a t-shirt’s production. Journalists interview entities across the supply chain from farmers who grow the cotton to apparel factory workers who cut and sew the fabric. The t-shirt will include a code that the buyer can scan with a smartphone, transporting him or her to an interactive page exhibiting photos and stories of the supply chain actors who produced the t-shirt.

In the food sector, following the scandal concerning the contamination of beef with horsemeat in the UK earlier this year, buying traceable, local and British food has become considerably more important to consumers according to latest research from Mintel. Efforts to increase traceability in this sector are advancing quickly in response to dipping consumer confidence. Beef and lamb producers from Scotland to New Zealand are investing in technology that attempts to “fingerprint” meat by looking for chemical traces of a farm’s soil, grass, water and air where the animals were reared. While this form of scientific verification of meat’s provenance is still in its initial stages, as it develops further, the practice may be applied to tracing other food products. For premium brands with a reputation for high quality this could invigorate consumer loyalty and make the global food chain less opaque.

The Frontiers of Business Leadership

Elon Musk, the futurist entrepreneur and founder of Tesla and SpaceX, has recently unveiled an ambitious plan for solving a public transportation challenge. He proposed the Hyperloop, a solar powered high-speed tube transport system that could potentially shuttle passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 30 minutes. Musk estimates the cost of this to be $6 billion, which is dramatically lower than the contentious $70 billion California high-speed rail plan kicking off construction later this year.

Musk’s business acumen combined with scientific rigour and a forward-looking vision gained further credibility when in mid-August the company announced that Tesla’s Model S had achieved the highest-ever safety rating, setting a new record for the lowest likelihood of injury to occupants. Model S is not only outperforming but also outselling competitors in California, the US’s largest automotive market..

Another business leader, Toyota. is offering training in kaizen, its “continuous improvement,” business model approach that has been proven to maximize efficiency in its operations to anti-hunger charity The Food Bank for New York City. By searching for ways to streamline and enhance performance, Toyota helped the food bank reduce average wait times and ultimately ensure that more people were served food.

The unlikely Toyota-Food Bank collaboration and Musk’s Hyperloop proposal both illustrate how business leaders – companies and individuals – are leveraging their core competencies to solve wider societal challenge not directly related to their day-to-day operations or product offerings. To move from incremental to transformational change, this approach is precisely the kind of leadership needed, where business leaders act beyond addressing challenges within their core business to assuming the role of concerned citizens committed to solving global challenges.

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