The world in the 21st century is a complicated, interconnected place. The food on our supermarket shelves contains ingredients produced around the world – and the supply chains that deliver those ingredients can be complex and difficult to unravel.
That means that the impacts of producing soy in Latin America, or palm oil in Indonesia, tend to be hidden from view. Was the palm oil in my chocolate bar sourced sustainably, or was forest cleared to make way for the plantation, with local villagers driven off their land?
More and more companies are keen to address these questions – with many committing to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains [link]. And a growing number of organisations are working to support them to do just that, creating tools and frameworks to encourage greater transparency.
A collaborative approach
This shared focus on eliminating deforestation creates common purpose among many leading environmental organisations, and they have joined together to form the Supply Chain Transparency Network (SCTN) – an informal alliance convened by Global Canopy and the Stockholm Environment Institute, designed to facilitate collaboration and new strategies for advancing sustainable supply chains, with a focus on supply chain data.
At the most recent SCTN meeting during the UN climate talks in Bonn, Germany, participants shared updates and discussed where common areas of work might lead to useful collaboration. Researchers demonstrated how online tools and innovative database methods, such as graph databases, could help with access to data and unlock new research frontiers for the data contained in Trase.Earth, for example.
Even simply highlighting where many organisations are working with the same datasets can facilitate greater progress towards sustainable supply chains. A 2016 survey of SCTN members found that many not only relied upon common data sources, but duplicated efforts to obtain, process, and analyse the data. Through collaboration, organisations can share data costs and all benefit from quicker, easier use of the data.
NGOs can also combine their efforts to engage with companies who want to act, encouraging them to take responsibility for environmental impacts on the ground, or to identify opportunities for making their supply chains more sustainable. SCTN members shared a strong need for aligned engagement particularly in response to companies feeling overwhelmed by the number and diversity of organisations calling for action.
By mapping who is doing what, organisations working on supply chain transparency can better understand where there are gaps in information – or challenges that need to be addressed. And with so much potential data out there, a shared understanding of objectives can help prioritise which information is most useful – and who it is useful for.
Adding transparency to traceability
While traceability (knowing where your soy or palm oil has come from) is an essential component of achieving sustainable supply chains, this information is even more useful when it is made public, and pooling this information can ultimately reduce costs for everyone involved.
A collective approach makes it easier to share best practice between NGOs, but also between companies. This can advance sustainable practices, and deforestation-free supply chains more quickly.
The question of how to advance transparent traceability is one of the elements at the heart of the SCTN, as organisations are working to advance sustainable supply chain solutions for entire commodity sectors. While efforts by an individual company may help that particular company, making the data transparent can benefit a greater number of companies regardless of their size or resources.
What next for SCTN?
In the first half of 2018, SCTN members will take forward some of the proposals identified in Bonn. The agenda includes streamlining communication to companies regarding the various tools and initiatives created by SCTN members in response to the pressing need to address commodity-driven deforestation.
This will mean SCTN allies will be able to help companies understand which tools to use for which challenges, and how these tools can be used together most effectively. Other priority topics include cataloguing the improving access to relevant databases, and conducting an annual stock-take of emerging trends and tools among member organisations.
Given the size of the challenge posed by climate change and deforestation, collaboration is critical. Groups like the SCTN can magnify the impact of individual initiatives, helping make the impact of all greater than the sum of the parts.
Sarah Lake is Trase lead at Global Canopy where she heads up the Supply Chains Programme.
Do you work in on supply chain transparency and want to join the SCTN? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Membership is free and open to all organisations.
The Supply Chain Transparency Network is made possible with the generous funding of the Climate and Land Use Alliance