The first large-scale analysis of corporate practices in the field of sustainability shows that things aren’t rosy. While many companies touch upon the issue on some level, most of them source sustainable materials only for a small subset of what they use, or only for a limited portion of their supply chain.

Chimney.

Image credits Michael Gaida.

Most of us want the sweetness of chocolate without the bitter aftertaste of cocoa-farmer-exploitation or deforestation. So, we scour our local groceries for bars stamped with the Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance certifications and bite down with complete abandon, knowing that we’re a good person.

Don’t choke on that velvety brown bit of deliciousness, but I’ve got bad news. A team of Stanford University researchers has produced the first large-scale study of corporate sustainability practices and, according to their findings, buying sustainable products isn’t as easy as that. Over half of the companies involved in the study applied some type of sustainability practice one or more levels in their supply chain, but these are much more limited in scope and reach than you’d imagine

“Our results show a glass half full and half empty,” said study co-author Eric Lambin.

The paper looks at sourcing practices through the lens of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, a to-do list that should lead us towards a sustainable global economy. Global supply chains touch on more than 80% of global trade and employ more than one in five workers, the authors note, making them one of the make-or-break factors in achieving the goals set out by the U.N.

So, they set out to analyze 449 publicly listed companies in the food, textile, and wood-product sectors. They report that about half employ some form of sustainable sourcing practice — this can range from third-party certifications of production standards to environmental training for their suppliers. Here are some highlights of their most important findings:

  • Over 70% of these sustainable sourcing practices only extended to a subset of input materials for a given product. For example, a company used recycled materials for packaging, but the rest of its products didn’t use sustainably-sourced materials.
  • Only 15% of sustainable sourcing practices focused on health, energy, infrastructure, climate change, education, gender or poverty.
  • Almost all such practices impacted a single tier in the supply chain, usually first-tier suppliers — such as the textile factories that sew garments. The remaining processes (growing cotton or wool, dyeing the cloth, so on) remained unaddressed.
  • Over 25% of sustainable sourcing practices apply to a single product line — for example, using Fair Trade certification for only one type of chocolate bar in a company that sells several types.

“Advancing environmental and social goals in supply chains can quickly become very complex,” said study co-author Joann de Zegher.

“This complexity is reflected in our findings that companies use a broad range of strategies and that current efforts have limited reach.”

It’s not all bad news, however. The researchers report that companies are “significantly more likely” to adopt at least one sustainable sourcing practice when faced with pressure from consumers and civil society at large. Companies headquartered in countries with more and more active NGOs were also found to be more likely to use sustainable sourcing practices, highlighting the importance of citizen involvement in this matter. Lead author Tannis Thorlakson hopes that the findings will motivate consumers to demand more sustainability from producers and that the paper will serve as “a call to action for those 48 percent of companies that aren’t doing anything to address sustainability challenges in their supply chain.”

So the next time you can’t find any Fair Trade-stamped chocolate bar at the grocery, write a strongly-worded email of dissatisfaction to the producer — you might just make the difference in keeping chocolate around for future generations.

The paper “Companies’ contribution to sustainability through global supply chains” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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