Visiting the UK and meeting with different people across UK agri supply-chains is always accompanied by discussions around the subject of sustainability – certain concepts and assumptions are affirmed, others challenged, and new perspectives and priorities are brought to the fore. At a minimum, the rapidly evolving and shifting nature of this field is confirmed. These visits are obviously extremely valuable to the shaping of our thinking at Blue North, and below I have shared some thoughts and insights from my latest trip:
- Those retailers that have been working for some time on the implementation of sustainability strategies are recognizing the relevance of more localized, bottom-up approaches, if real and lasting improvement is to be achieved. There is greater pragmatism evident, recognition perhaps, that the supply-chains within which they operate, the entities with which they engage, and the nature of the subject with which they grapple, make for an incredibly complex concoction, and that top-down, prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approaches are no longer appropriate. They just do not work , particularly at farm-level.
- The retailers’ sustainability strategies and programs are becoming increasingly sophisticated and thorough; there is less hype, more thought. I suspect this is all on the back of a significant accumulation of learning, knowledge and experience. The consequence of this is an increasing pressure on suppliers – there are fewer places left to hide, and a decreasing tolerance for efforts that don’t deliver real improvement. This calls for more proactive, considered and thorough engagement from all suppliers.
- Related to the above, is that merely measuring impacts is no longer sufficient. Suppliers can expect to be challenged: Is there an overarching strategy? Are risks being proactively identified and prioritized? Are improvement targets being set? Is real improvement evident? This is a significant shift that reinforces the need for more robust, systematic and effective programs of action by all entities up-stream of the retailers.
- In recognition of the often overwhelming complexity of sustainability strategies, retailers are increasingly adopting the approach of identifying and focusing on sustainability ‘hotspots’, relevant to each specific supply chain. Although the concept of sustainability ‘hotspots’ might just come across as another buzzword in the retailers’ sustainability lexicon, it does reflect an appreciation that issues and priorities do differ across supply chains, and that these issues need to be recognised and accommodated.
- While it is certainly true that bottom-up approaches are key to securing and ‘tapping’ the mind-space, commitment, knowledge, learning and action of the farmers at the base of the supply-chain, such processes can be significantly enhanced through the collection, analysis and sharing of macro-level information relevant to that supply-base. So, while a bottom-up process may generate a farm-centric risk management agenda, a top-down climate-change study relevant to a particular supply-chain, for example, can greatly enrich the farmers’ understanding and perspectives of the risks emerging from wider scale and longer-term changes in climate. The same goes for the socio-economic and geo-political spheres. These are all subject areas that are often the preserve of academic institutions and are covered on a scale that can make it challenging for individual farmers to access, contextualize and apply. Top-down initiatives of this type hold the potential to overcome this challenge, and in so doing, can be of enormous value to farm-level processes of change. This is possibly where bottom-up and top-down approaches can most effectively be meshed together.
In the final analysis, the sustainability of any agri supply-chain is a function of the actions taken at farm-level. If the primary production process results in the critical impairment or destruction of the biosphere, it destroys not only its own essential foundation, but that of the whole supply-chain superstructure built upon it. This much is obvious. Bottom-up processes are built upon an ethos of respect for the local, site-specific knowledge and experience, acknowledging the fact that the farmer has the most relevant knowledge and the greatest vested interest in the long-term ecological well being of his/her farm. Given this, the emphasis should be to first and foremost on enabling a bottom-up processes of change. Top-down approaches (including hotspot analyses), can then be deployed in a supporting role. However, it is important to be aware that “too much” top-down can quickly kill bottom-up momentum. Achieving the right balance of bottom-up and top-down will become a critical determinant of the success of agri supply-chain sustainability strategies into the future.