By Sarah E. Lewis, Ph.D., Managing Director of Working Groups and Research Integration at The Sustainability Consortium

Imagine if you were asked to fix a leak in a pipe that was coming from somewhere inside the wall of your house. How would you know where to start? What would you look for? How would you decide what tools to use? How would you know if you needed to ask for help? How would you know what damage had been done besides what was rising up around your feet?

Identifying the Leak

First, you would need to know how the pipes are connected, how the water flows from one pipe to another, as well as what mechanisms are in place that control the flow of water, the amount of time those mechanisms have been in place, the availability of professionals nearby who can help if needed, what is causing the leak, and just generally where in the system of pipes the leak is coming from. Identifying the source of the problem is a good place to start to solve any problem.

So imagine that the water is information, the pipes represent networks of communication, the faucets are people who make decisions that allow information to flow and the leak is the inefficiency within the system that has caused environmental, social, and therefore economic malfunctioning, ultimately reducing the ecosystem services provided by that home/planet.

The Value of Supply Networks

Professionals within the field of sustainability have long understood the value of supply networks and the importance of driving efficiency with those systems in order to improve business. What they are also increasingly recognizing – at least within the consumer goods industry – is the importance of using supply network diagrams and blueprints of information exchange systems to drive transparency where impacts are occurring so that the right tools, partners, and impacts are identified and addressed across a product category life cycle.

Many of us focus on our daily tasks, project outcomes, and personal goals for our career tracks and often end up forgetting to better understand the broader system in which we work. This works for a while, but when the faucet starts leaking and our feet are wet under the table, we realize it would have been helpful to better understand the system so that we can efficiently connect with it and fix it as quickly and with as few resources as possible.

The Sustainability Consortium® (TSC®) recognizes that users of its Sustainability Measurement and Reporting System (SMRS) can drive change much further within product supply chains by working together pre-competitively to develop and/or identify product category supply network diagrams that can be incorporated into category dossiers and used to facilitate implementation of its system.

But more importantly, they can together implement strategies that drive improvement of key environmental and social impacts across the value chain much more effectively. TSC has developed diagrams that accompany groups of product categories in a number of sectors such as Food, Beverage, and Agriculture; Clothing, Footwear, and Textiles; and Paper, Pulp, and Forestry. These diagrams are available for TSC members’ use as well as researchers who use them to inform the development of SMRS components, including the dossier, Category Sustainability Profile, and Key Performance Indicators.

Prioritization through Diagrams

Creating these diagrams can help organizations prioritize their efforts and address product sustainability more effectively. There is existing research, expertise, initiatives, and tools available across supply networks that may or may not be visible unless more transparency and understanding of the supply network is developed.

Identifying where the “leak” is and how that factors into your supply network can help determine the right course of action. Finally, improving one’s ability to “see” into the supply network just by creating a blueprint and linking those communication nodes with sustainability hotspots, can help you know whether or not existing systems can facilitate partnerships, or if additional communication tools are needed.

Members of TSC have used the supply network diagrams they have developed in the working groups to inform the development of product category key performance indicators that best align with how the supply network communicates. They have used them for increasing their understanding of who to contact related to an identified hotspot within the life cycle of the product category they manufacture, and they have used them to facilitate communication about existing data that are available for use in benchmarking progress towards addressing a hotspot.

Companies have been using supply network diagrams to facilitate corporate social responsibility reporting for quite some time and according to new reporting guidelines, supply network diagrams, or supply chain maps, will increasingly become a required component of corporate sustainability reports.

So, if you’re working to improve the sustainability of your products and have identified that there are “leaks” in the system, working collaboratively with one’s sector to create diagrams, or blueprints, of your supply network can help align your sustainability work with social and environmental hotspots so that decisions to address those issues are faster, efficiency is built in, and action is prioritized.