Supply Chain Scholars Should Address Climate Change

As climate change hits global supply chains, supply chain researchers aren’t providing the guidance needed. Leading scholars identify how that can change. 

What’s the impact of climate change on supply chains? How could researchers tackle these issues? And, what’s holding them back? 

The Journal of Supply Chain Management recently hosted a three-part webinar series on the role of climate change in supply chain research to answer these questions.

This article summarizes the key takeaways from the webinar series, which featured nine supply chain scholars from across the US and Europe. They presented on:

1. Why supply chain scholars should engage in climate change scholarship (February 24, 2022. Watch the recording here.) 

2. Which research questions supply chain scholars could consider investigating on climate change (March 3, 2022. Watch the recording here.) 

3. How supply chain scholars can move forward from a perspective of research methods and data sources (March 10, 2022. Watch the recording here.) 

Here are the takeaways. 

Climate change matters for supply chains  

The impact of climate change is observable today in so many ways. For example, permafrost is thawing, summer temperatures are becoming warmer, and the Jet Stream is becoming more unstable. All these changes pose risks  for global supply chains. (Levermann) 

Studies show that climate change is already impacting businesses globally – and that businesses aren’t prepared. New research finds that 49% of production sites in corporate supply chains are experiencing great climate variability. Yet, a majority of those sites don’t have a plan for how to address these issues. (Gerst & Guntuka) 

Supply chain emissions also drive climate change – arguably, all emissions on the planet are somehow related to supply chains. (Wieland)  

Supply chain management research can better address climate change

Supply chain scholars can influence business’s response to climate change. But in research and teaching, they are often promoting values of growth, consumer satisfaction, and profit. These priorities can drive global emissions. For example, palm oil plantations lead to “efficient” supply chains and easy-to-process food production. But those plantations have also destroyed vast quantities of rainforest. (Wieland) 

Indeed, climate change is still being treated like an emerging issue in supply chain research. If supply chain scholars hope to make a meaningful contribution to climate change, they must understand and address the reasons that so little progress has been made to date. That begins with changing researchers’ assumptions. (Pagell)

6 research assumptions prevent climate impact 

Everyone has assumptions based on past experiences. In a research context, such assumptions or biases are called “positionality.” They affect what researchers decide to explore and the direction of their findings. (McCarthy)  

Here are 6 assumptions behind modern supply chain scholarship. They’re presented with ways to re-think them, so that supply chain research can be more useful in addressing the climate.  

Assumption 1: Study the present 

Supply chain research usually looks at what’s currently happening in supply chains. But to address climate change, researchers need to take a broader time perspective. 

  • They need to help business leaders reimagine the future. That can mean creating an inspiring and evidence-based vision for the future. 
  • They also need to consider the past, and particularly how global supply chains have developed. That analysis should influence research. For example, the former colonial powers are now less vulnerable to climate change than the countries that were colonized. This imbalance matters for an equitable climate change response. (McCarthy) 

Assumption 2: Engineered optimality is the goal 

Businesses and researchers tend to approach supply chain management through “engineered optimality,” or purely technological solutions. But action on climate change requires a change in social systems. Management isn’t just about engineering – it needs to consider behavioural transformation. Supply chain scholars should adjust their focus accordingly. (Wieland) 

Assumption 3: Lead with existing theory 

Academic scholars put a lot of emphasis on how their work contributes to existing academic theories. That can distract from the practical impact of the research.  

To develop a research agenda that addresses climate change, researchers should ask questions like: How is this research helping to address climate change? Who is this research serving? 

Researchers may draw on more appropriate theories from other fields and even create new approaches: perhaps, a “theory of ecologically harmonious supply chains.” (Touboulic & Matthews)

Assumption 4: Only study business impacts 

Supply chain research sees businesses as the primary stakeholders. Scholars explore how climate change will impact raw material availability, transportation, sales, and other variables of interest to business.  

To understand the relationship between supply chains and climate change, research should consider more stakeholders – in particular, marginalized communities who are affected by supply chain decisions but have less power or influence related to them. (McCarthy) 

For example, a study of the electric cars’ sustainability is incomplete without factoring in how cobalt used in EV batteries comes from unsafe, underage labour in the Congo. A different stakeholder pool leads to better understanding.

Assumption 5: Work in silos 

In academia, researchers tend to stay in their disciplines, where they speak a common language and ask similar questions. Collaboration is relatively easy within disciplines and much harder across them. 

But climate change doesn’t follow disciplinary boundaries. Predicting and responding to its impacts requires input from those who understand climate and weather, ecosystem dynamics, and political, business and social systems. Supply chain management scholars need to pursue interdisciplinary collaboration, e.g. with scholars in industrial ecology, climate science, human geography, and human rights.  

They should look outside the academy for collaborators, as well. Engaged scholarship means partnering directly with the people working in supply chains, or civil society organization like Greenpeace. Their insights into day-to-day operations and the barriers to climate action can make research more relevant and even rigorous. (Matthews) 

Assumption # 6: Use field-specific methods and data 

Each discipline tends to use its own methods and data. That’s limiting in terms of knowledge, and another obstacle to interdisciplinarity.  

Supply chain researchers need to start “speaking the language” of natural and social scientists and accessing new types of information. In the natural science arena, they might draw on satellite images or other geographic data. Useful data sets include the CDP’s corporate environmental disclosures and the Ecoinvent database for understanding a manufacturing process’ life cycle impact on greenhouse gas emissions – as in this article. (Matthews)   

The graphic summarizes how to revise the six assumptions. 

Be Part of the Change 

Participants in the series’ first webinar suggested diverse climate change topics that supply chain research could address. These included social impact and environmental justice, environmental improvements, innovation (e.g. the green or circular economy), vulnerability and resilience, behavioural change (by companies and consumers) and new supply chain systems and structures. 

There’s tremendous opportunity. For the organizers of the webinar series, the goal is for the conversation and action to be ongoing.  

A lot of the hard science solutions are known,” said co-organizer Pagell. “They may not be known at scale but we know kind of what we need to do. The real issue is getting people and the organizations in which people work to actually make the changes.” 

For those researchers interested in doing more: Fire off an email to a climate activist. Walk across the campus to another department. Take an inspirational article that has sat on your virtual desktop, and make it your top priority. And, know that you’re not alone. Comment below or reach out to the Journal of Supply Chain Management (Sara Hsu, shsu6@utk.edu) with your ideas.  

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Author

  • Kyle Madden

    Kyle Madden is a business and robotics engineering student exploring sustainability topics at the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ontario, Canada. He believes that sustainable business practices will reshape society in the coming decades.

  • Chelsea Hicks-Webster

    Chelsea spent her master’s degree studying ecosystem health in Kenya and is the former Operations Manager for The Network for Business Sustainability. She’s also a certified life coach. Chelsea now splits her time between her two passion projects; sustainability writing and editing, and helping over-stressed mothers improve their mental health and find more joy in life.

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