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Sustainable Consumption, Production and Supply Chain Management

Advancing Sustainable Economic Systems

Part 3 - Summary

Sustainable Consumption, Production and Supply Chain ManagementThe car mass production system – and by extension that in many other industries – is essentially supply-driven; in a supply-driven system, demand is driven by supply in order to satisfy the manufacturing systems. These need a return on the high investments created to supply in the volumes once essential to meet demand and which therefore demand that level of supply continues to break even. In this context, reducing demand in a move towards more sustainable consumption and production is a non-starter as the implications for some of the largest players in the economy are too awful to contemplate.

Supply Chain Management (SCM) can be considered the very ‘lifeblood’ of economic activity, while at the same time impacting on many different ecosystems. SCM has developed the sub-discipline of Sustainable SCM, or SSCM in response. However, research in this field has failed to fully capture all of a supply chain’s impacts, mainly because of a theoretical distortion in favour of profit maximisation and economically beneficial practices under the guise of The Triple Bottom Line (TBL). In fact, by presenting sustainability as constituting the economic, the social and the environmental, the focus has been more on current concerns, as these three areas in reality can be dealt with at an operational level, while sustainability, as presented by the WCED (1987) very much emphasises responsibility to future generations, which moves it much more into the realm of the longer term strategic. Separating the economic, social and environmental once again from the sustainability concept may therefore be much more helpful in redirecting that primary focus back onto the future generations issue.

Gruner and Power (2017) link ecological concepts with SSCM. They take the ecological concept of intergradation to show how sustainability thinking can gradually be merged with SCM thinking. This concept describes how different species of plants gradually merge at the boundaries of their ranges, rather than present a sudden transition from one ecosystem to the other. Winn and Pogutz (2013, 205) distinguish between seeing organisations within their natural environment, as opposed to using ecological concepts as analogies for organisations, it is suggested here that this can be leveraged to enable businesses to better understand their embeddedness within ecosystems and thus to bring about a gradual shift in understanding and corporate behaviour more in line with that understanding. The ecological concept of diversity is beginning to be regarded as desirable also for social, economic and industrial structures. Diversity in ecosystems comes into its own at times of change (Geng and Côté, 2007). Diversity implies that for any given stable ecosystem there is a certain degree of apparent redundancy – the presence of species with no obviously relevant role in the system (Peterson et al.1998). It is precisely in this respect that the concept may embody lessons for business, particularly in the context of SCM, where traditionally ‘efficiency’ has been pursued as a primary objective. Is it possible that this pursuit of efficiency has in fact made supply chains – and economies – less resilient?

If SSCM is able to engage with this more ecological agenda, it could play a leading role in the broader transition to a more sustainable economic system, as promoted by more sustainability-aware disciplines and sub-disciplines such as industrial ecology, sustainable consumption and production (SCP), de-growth, and others. In the short and medium term there are perhaps more practical implications for SSCM, such as the need to think of the organization and supply chain as integral parts of ecosystems. It will also require a re-think on a number of other issues, such as the current focus on waste – as waste is not a concept that is relevant from an ecological perspective (waste from one organic process always provides an input for other organic processes) – and also growth and productivity, which are not always in line with a sustainability perspective. Other issues to rethink include profit-maximising, the focus on cost minimization and the search for efficiency. Instead, aim to replicate the principles of a living system and prioritise resilience.

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