Chains, levers and webs: supply chain sustainability’s strange mix

GEMI appreciated Scott Nadler sharing his insights on supply chain sustainability strategy at our supply chain sustainability workshop in June of last year, and wanted to share the following blog detailing Scott’s thoughts on this important subject. This article originally appeared on Nadler Strategy LLC.

I was drafted into the corporate environmental world.

One January morning over 25 years ago, I was called up to the executive floor at the railroad where I worked. The Chairman had realized we were 5 years behind our competitors and 10 years behind our customers and that we needed a corporate environmental program. I was it. I was pulled from my roles in marketing, development and real estate to create and run the corporate environmental program.  The Board of Directors was meeting in an hour to confirm my appointment. The only guidance I got was: “Go figure out what you do.”

Ruthlessly, I went out to track down industry leaders (especially from our big customers) and squeeze every bit of insight I could from them. At the time, those leaders were all involved with GEMI. I glommed onto them.

After their GEMI meetings, my new mentors often gathered at the bar to commiserate. They complained about regulators who told them what to do and what not to do, without understanding their business. They went off on NGOs who demanded lots of information without knowing what they would do with that information.

Once I timidly asked these wise men and women how they dealt with suppliers (especially since I was one). They all boasted of their supplier management programs: “We tell our suppliers clearly what they can and can’t do, and we demand a lot of information.”  They didn’t seem to appreciate the irony.

Fast-forward 25 years and a lot has changed – but maybe not enough. Companies like Nike, Walmart and P&G, and industries like electronics and apparel, have put in place major supplier programs that no one dreamed of back then. Emerging platforms like the US BCSD’s Materials Marketplace create innovative new customer-supplier relationships. [Disclosure: I serve as Program Director for US BCSD.] But then I participated in two meetings last year that plunged me deeply back into the world of supply chain sustainability.  Between GEMI’s Supply Chain Sustainability Workshop and US BCSD’s “Expanding the Circle” meeting with Ohio State University, I talked with dozens of companies and trade associations about this.

Concerned with what I saw, I checked in with a colleague who brings a very different perspective. His firm, Ibis Consulting, is based in Africa. [Disclosure: I am a Non-Executive Director at Ibis.]  He works with companies at the other end of the supply chain, as well as firms who have their own supply chains to worry about.

We agreed that there are three competing supply chain sustainability approaches now which can be summarized as:

  • Chains, not much different than 25 years ago, that limit action and impose a burden to be carried by suppliers;
  • Levers which are still linear but open the potential for two-way collaboration; and
  • Webs that recognize and utilize the non-linear nature of many commercial relationships.

We published our thoughts last week.  That article includes a quick test you can take to see if your program is made up of chains, levers or webs – if you’re brave enough.

[Opinions in this blog are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of Nadler Strategy’s clients or partners, or those cited in the post. To share this blog, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to]

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