Natural circles

The word ‘sustainable’ causes various responses, in several senses. In April this year, economists at ING observed an ongoing recovery of industrial activity in the Netherlands, yet there was no mention of a sustainable recovery of demand. In his monthly online column, Kevin O’Marah, from the American research and analysis organisation AMR Research, expressed his surprise at such enthusiasm for the attention paid to sustainable supply chains during Intel’s recent suppliers’ day. While it is becoming quite common to hear companies respond that sustainability has been a key focus for them for years, other companies still view it as a new concept.

An approach worth revisiting, in my opinion, is that of comparing corporate life with nature. Analogies liking the world of ants to supply chains have fascinated me personally for some time. Hence, I was pleasantly surprised when the recent book ‘Animal Firm’ – about what companies can learn from the animal kingdom – presented me with new facts about ants’ amazing capacity to innovate: about how they are continually sharing knowledge to help the entire colony become more effective and how they learn from each other’s mistakes. For ants, innovation is an infinite cycle.

In another interesting book, ‘Earth, Inc.’, the author Gregory Unruh regards the biosphere as a profitable organisation that is continually creating value. Studying the biosphere, he concludes that, rather than being a linear value chain which begins with the use of raw materials and ends with the disgorgement of waste, it is a value cycle. However, Unruh maintains that companies cannot construct a value cycle simply by ‘bending’ their existing value chain – that would only serve to create an expensive chaos. Taking inspiration from the biosphere, he identifies five principles: materials parsimony, power autonomy, value cycling, sustainable product platforms and function over form. By applying the biosphere principles in that particular order, an organisation can achieve a state of embedded sustainability. But no company can be sustainable on its own, since each company forms part of an economic ecosystem of customers, suppliers and partners.

It would seem relatively simple to make a chain sustainable, since, on paper, it is one-dimensional and can be approached step by step. However, a value cycle adds an extra dimension; a circle is continuous – that sounds like hard work. But once you have become part of the circle, it is logical and natural – just like nature itself.

Martijn Lofvers, Publishing Director & Chief Editor of Supply Chain Magazine