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Use Metrics to Make Your Supply Chain Circular

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The circular economy has potential, but metrics are still evolving. We identify core measures and remaining questions.

We are in the Anthropocene: the period where human activities have become significant geological forces. Our activities have changed broad landscapes, permanently affecting biodiversity and pushing the Earth’s planetary boundaries.

Companies are under pressure to radically change manufacturing, production, and consumption. They’re trying to accommodate resource shortages and reduce waste emissions.

Circular economy principles can potentially reduce the damage. The circular economy is a closed-loop. That means reducing waste by keeping material in circulation in the economy. Material can stay in circulation in various ways — through reuse, repair, remanufacture, recycling and repurposing. (See the famous butterfly diagram from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.)

The bad news: There’s no guarantee that circularity will solve the challenges of the Anthropocene. That’s because measures and metrics for the circular economy are still evolving.

Many options for circular metrics exist. But it’s not always clear what the core, most important measures are. So, businesses and other decision-makers can have difficulty deciding what to focus on.

A particular problem is that the connection between circularity and sustainability can be unclear. Ideally, circular practices reduce waste. But in some cases, they lead to greater resource use. For example, research shows that the “circular” process of turning food waste into edible ingredients is only environmentally sustainable if it is kept within a specific geographic range. Waste handling and other aspects of the circular economy can also have health and other social consequences.

This article focuses on how to use metrics to advance your supply chain toward circularity and sustainability, despite the uncertainty. It draws directly on our recent academic research.

Many Circularity Performance Measurement Options Exist

The circular economy happens at multiple levels. There are national and multi-national policies such as China’s circular economy policy, regional policies such as eco-industrial parks, and also individual organizations’ supply chains and practices

Performance measures for the circular economy vary depending on the type of product, location, and industry.  These measurement options come from suppliers, distributors, communities, regulators, and even investment firms – and members of these groups working together. Academics are also involved in metric development.

There are localized community programs and global metrics, such as Global Reporting Initiative and International Standards Organization. Some metrics come from industry associations: for example, the Global Electronics Council’s Circular Electronics Partnership. Even the Association for Supply Chain Management’s supply chain operations reference (SCOR) model has started to expand and consider performance measures for circularity.

Below are some key global and local initiatives for circularity metrics for business supply chains.

Circularity-Related Measurement Frameworks for Supply Chain Management
ProgramSample Circularity Metrics
Circular Electronics Roadmap - Circular Electronics Partnership • Focus on longevity, reuse and recyclability (LRR)
• Roadmap and performance outcomes along the process
• Measuring progress using key performance metrics
Circular Procurement Green Deal - Netherlands • Reduce total amount of materials
• Reduce non-renewable virgin input
• Extend the use and lifetime of products
• Optimize the potential recycling of products & materials
Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) 306: Waste 2020 • Percentage of new suppliers that were screened using environmental criteria
• Number of suppliers assessed for environmental impacts
• Significant actual and potential negative environmental impacts identified in the supply chain
Circularity Gap Reporting Initiative (CGRI) – Circle Economy • Extracted resources
• End-of-life stage of material input and output
• Waste: mining waste, unregistered waste, and landfilled waste
• Cycled resources
• Consumption footprint
Circular Transition Indicators - World Business Council for Sustainability Development • Organized by “close,” “optimize” “value” and “impact” of the loop
• New: impact of recycled sourcing on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions
• Lifetime extension strategies

How to Use Performance Measures for Circularity – and Sustainability

How can a supply chain manager start using circularity measures?

Here’s our answer: Get started — even as you recognize that these measures are still in early development.

Not all products, regions, and industries have consensus measures. Universal adoption of these measures requires broad-based agreement — an agreement that may not be forthcoming. And currently, measures are often too high level to make sure that circularity is indeed truly sustainable.

Yet, organizations need to begin somewhere.

Below we describe how to start out, despite uncertainties. Recognize that it’s a journey, and your first steps are valuable. Just understanding the need for these performance measures is the beginning.

We’ve reviewed academic research and practical applications to assemble a table of core circular economy measures for organizations (more detail on our sources in the research article).

Core Circular Economy (CE) Metrics for Organizations and Suppliers
Consumer UseCE-related consumer trainingThe supplier has tailored consumer training that entails implementing CE in a specific function or business unit.
Consumer UsePotential recycling of productsThe supplier’s practices contribute to product recycling at the consumption stage.
Consumer UseIncentive mechanism for recycling and reuse (products and packaging) for stakeholdersThe supplier has involved an incentive mechanism for products and/or packaging recycling and re-usage for stakeholders, for example customers.
MaterialsMaterial recyclingThe supplier focuses on material recycling optimization in its business processes.
MaterialsMaterial reuseThe supplier extends the usage and re-usage of input (procured) materials.
MaterialsRenewable materialsThe supplier primarily uses renewable materials in business processes.
MaterialsNon-renewable virgin inputThe supplier is reducing the use of non-renewable material as virgin input in business processes.
Production ProcessesTechnological and InfrastructureThe supplier has suitable information technology (IT) and digital systems in place to support a circular business model.
Production ProcessesCE-oriented organizational policyThe supplier has a CE-specific mission and objectives in its organizational strategic planning.
Production ProcessesCE-related employee trainingThe supplier has tailored employee training that entails implementing CE across business functions.
Production ProcessesResource efficiencyThe supplier emphasizes resource efficiency improvement in its business processes.
Production ProcessesSystems risksThe supplier has specific processes for identifying, assessing, and managing system risks related to the transition to a circular economy.
Production ProcessesPotential reuse of products & componentsThe supplier focuses on products & components reusage optimization (greater longevity and reparability) in its business processes.

Choose a Circular Supplier

One of the most important aspects of making a supply chain circular is through building the right partnerships.  This requires organizations to form partnerships with suppliers and others who have or can instill circularity. The identified performance metrics can help manage this process.

We’ve developed a decision model for circularity supplier selection. If you are comfortable with algebra, we encourage you to use it. Access it through our article: Circular economy and circularity supplier selection: a fuzzy group decision approach.

You can also build circularity into a more standard supplier selection process. For example:

  1. Choose circularity measures. Look at the chart above. Should suppliers be using recycled or reused materials? Do you need them to use renewable, recyclable or biodegradable materials? Do you want them to take-back materials or products? Do they need to have circular-economy-related training programs or offer Design for Environment services?

  2. Weigh circularity against other supplier selection criteria.  This relative importance evaluation can be made using a variety of tools, like a scorecard that includes a weighted comparison of decision criteria. 

  3. Determine which suppliers to consider.  Your company probably works with tons of suppliers. To decide which to work with first on integrating circularity, ask: Are there certain products or material suppliers that your company is especially concerned about? Are they core to your organization and your profit margin?  Are these products and materials sensitive—to your reputation, liability, or potential for improvement? Determine which suppliers to source from.

  4. Gather data and information from the set of suppliers. Not all information will be easily accessible or available. Be prepared to have suppliers fill in a questionnaire.  Many of the circularity performance sources we mentioned can help you develop such a survey or questionnaire. Have suppliers fill the questionnaire out and/or work closely with them to confirm accuracy and reliability of circularity information. 

  5. Evaluate the data and suppliers and decide. This means getting weights for each metric, and how well each supplier does on each metric. A simple approach is to simply multiply weights of the measure with supplier performance and aggregate to arrive at a weighted sum. Or you can use the more complex technique which we recently published.  You can then rank based on the aggregate scores.

This is the selection process. Of course, after initial selection, there will be negotiations, contracting, procuring and monitoring steps. To comprehensively integrate supply chain circularity, each of these will also require performance measures.

Circularity and Sustainability Are Uncertain – But Necessary

There’s still no single “right” way to use circularity metrics to select suppliers and build a sustainable supply chain. But one thing is clear: it’s time to start.

You’re a pioneer in this journey. As companies race to reduce waste and emissions by implementing circular practices, they risk unintended sustainability consequences. Incorporating performance measures will be a critical step to success.

The good news is that global frameworks will keep improving. With time and practice, these new processes will become clearer and easier for supply chain managers. Getting your hands dirty now can lead to a cleaner planet in the long term.

Read our related articles:

Bai, C., Zhu, Q., & Sarkis, J. (2022). Circular economy and circularity supplier selection: a fuzzy group decision approach. International Journal of Production Research, 1-24.

Bai, C., Zhu, Q., & Sarkis, J. (2021). Joint blockchain service vendor-platform selection using social network relationships: A multi-provider multi-user decision perspective. International journal of production economics, 238, 108165.

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  • Joseph Sarkis
    Professor of International Business
    Worcester Polytechnic Institute
    PhD in Management Science/Operations, University of Buffalo

    Joseph Sarkis is a Professor of Management within Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Business School. His teaching and research interests are in the fields of environmental sustainability, operations and supply chain management. He is the author or co-author of over 500 publications. He has received the designation of highly cited researcher for seven years from 2016-2022 by the Web-of-Science. He is the Editor-in-Chief of IEEE's Engineering Management Review and Associate Editor of Sustainable Supply Chains for Resources, Conservation and Recycling along with serving on the editorial board of a number of leading scholarly journals.

    View all posts
  • Chunguang Bai
    University of Electronic Science and Technology of China
    PhD, Dalian University of Technology

    Chunguang Bai is currently a Professor with the School of Management and Economics, University of Electronic Science and Technology of China. She has been recognized as one of the most cited researchers in China across disciplines. Her research interests include sustainable supply chain management, management of technology, and the circular economy.

    View all posts
  • Qingyun Zhu
    Assistant Professor of Management Information Systems
    San Diego State University
    PhD in Operations Management, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

    Qingyun Zhu is an Assistant Professor of Management Science and Gray Faculty Fellow in the Department of Information Systems, Supply Chain, and Analytics at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Her research focuses on sustainable supply chain management, green marketing, product deletion and blockchain technology.

    View all posts
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