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What is a Sustainable Supply Chain and How Can Responsible Businesses Achieve It?

Steve Russell - February 12, 2024

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Supply chains are becoming the new focus of sustainability trends worldwide. Businesses must adopt a sustainable supply chain and use responsible business practices to address growing sustainability concerns.

What is a Sustainable Supply Chain?

A sustainable supply chain refers to a socially, economically and environmentally responsible coordination of sourcing, manufacturing and distribution of goods. While traditional supply chains value profit and minimizing costs above everything else, a sustainable supply chain focuses on meeting current demands and securing the future of the company, its stakeholders and consumers.

What are the Benefits of a Sustainable Supply Chain?

Companies using a sustainable supply chain have a lasting positive impact on the environment and current and future generations. Here are some of those benefits.

  • Improve environmental practices: Establishing a sustainable supply chain helps reduce carbon emissions and material waste and maximize natural resources. Revamping existing supply chains can help companies be more environmentally mindful and inspire other businesses to do the same.
  • Reduce social inequalities: A sustainable supply chain is more than ensuring companies follow environmental best practices. It must also address social disparities and eradicate workplace abuses. Business leaders and managers must evaluate current employees’ working conditions, wages and benefits. Happy workers are more productive workers, ensuring business continuity.
  • Optimize business processes: Removing redundancies in different levels of any supply chain is a step in the right direction. Avoiding wasteful packaging, reducing travel times and sourcing eco-friendly materials from sustainable suppliers are just a few methods to improve overall business processes and performance.
  • Reduce costs: Becoming more sustainable is also a step towards lowering costs. Virgin materials often cost more than recycled ones, effectively increasing production costs. A sustainable supply chain that uses responsibly sourced materials can help improve a company’s bottom line by reducing costs wherever possible.
  • Create loyal customers: Many customers prefer eco-friendly products and are willing to pay a premium for them. Companies that adopt a sustainable approach to all levels of their supply chain can enjoy improved consumer satisfaction and patronage. Brands can establish customer loyalty by keeping environmental, social and economic promises.

How Can Businesses Create a Sustainable Supply Chain?

Sustainability impacts all levels of society and economics with its growing business implications. By incorporating these steps into their supply chain sustainability strategies, businesses can prove their commitment to greener and more responsible business practices.

1. Communicate With Partners

Companies must be transparent with their sustainability standards and communicate them with their supply network. Many businesses experience backlash when consumers discover that some suppliers do little to champion sustainability. One example is when Cambodian kilns use garment waste from global fashion brands to fuel brick-making operations, contributing to air pollution.

Every member of the supply network must follow sustainability principles from top to bottom. Companies must be adamant in attaining their goals to be truthful in customer claims. Businesses are at risk when their suppliers fail to follow proper sustainability practices — leading to severe social, financial and environmental repercussions.

2. Require Suppliers to Set Their Own Sustainability Goals

Supply chain sustainability is a long game, much like many business aspects. Supply networks must band together and set clear and achievable goals. A collaborative approach to supply chain sustainability will ensure responsible sourcing, better working conditions for workers, improved compliance with environmental laws and increased profits for everyone involved.

Companies must demand accountability from their suppliers. Upholding sustainability standards in all aspects of the supply chain must be mandatory. Businesses can delegate teams to oversee the monitoring of key performance indicators regarding supplier sustainability.

3. Follow Sustainability Standards

Setting sustainability goals is different from achieving them. Companies serious about improving their supply chain sustainability should also set standards to meet their pledges. Here are some safeguards that adhere to sustainability goals:

  • Strict workweek limits
  • Zero tolerance for workplace abuses
  • Compliance with local environmental and labor laws
  • Reduced packaging and patronage of eco-friendly materials
  • Patronage of local and minority suppliers wherever possible
  • Switching to renewable energy sources
  • Reduction of carbon footprint
  • Zero-waste and recycling protocols

4. Provide Incentives for Adherence and Monitor Progress

One way companies can inspire members of their supplier network to adhere to sustainability goals and standards is to provide incentives. Introducing best-in-compliance awards to participating suppliers and giving special mention to exemplary suppliers can help improve business relationships. Large corporations can also reward companies with more contracts for continued business growth.

Companies must also monitor and track their suppliers’ sustainability progress to help promote a responsible business culture. Keeping tabs on business partners can keep them on their feet and allow them to make proactive steps to meet overall sustainability goals in the supply chain. Meeting

5. Include Suppliers in Sustainability Strategies

An Accenture study shows that many CEOs believe in making sustainability a core business strategy as it builds resilience and counters disruptions. Companies can take the lead and include every member of their supply network in their sustainability programs. This approach can foster good relationships and improve the overall adherence to sustainability goals.

With every supplier working together, the whole supply chain can negate the social, economic and environmental impacts of product sourcing, manufacturing and fulfillment. Business leaders can help struggling partners maintain their footing and address issues before they get out of hand.

6. Join Associations Focused on Sustainability

Supply chains are responsible for 90% of an organization’s greenhouse emissions and contribute to 50% to 70% of operating costs. Companies seeking to offset their carbon footprint must view supply chain sustainability as an investment rather than a strictly for-compliance matter. Joining sustainability-focused associations can help supply networks get back on track with their sustainability efforts.

Associations like the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA) can help suppliers from different tiers with reliable assessment tools for auditing their existing business processes. Supply networks can strengthen their efforts to make sustainable practices more transparent and efficient. Organizations can avoid greenwashing allegations if they ensure all working parts of their supply chain adhere to global environmental standards.

The Importance of Sustainable Supply Chains

Consumers are increasingly aware of their spending habits and which businesses align with their social, environmental and ethical beliefs. Companies should prioritize creating a sustainable supply chain to future-proof their business and meet changing environmental and economic laws.

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About the author

Steve Russell

Steve is the Managing Editor of and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.