At the end of 2020-2021 I did a piece of research on behalf of my organisation on how progress towards net-zero could be accelerated in supply chains. The research took place with a small group of buyer organisations, some also suppliers themselves – a transport company, energy company, housing association and local authority – looking at their successes so far and shared challenges as they work to decarbonise their supply chains. My team and I then identified specific areas for further research and outlined some potential areas to create solutions.
I came to the residency with this project in mind, hoping to test some of my thinking and engage with different perspectives on design and sustainability. In a small organisation you have to build up reserves of the knowledge you need and sense-check your thinking with others outside where possible. I was hoping to find a community of people with whom to explore different angles around design and sustainability, cross-pollinate ideas and get inspired again.
My original aim for this response was to create an initial prototype of an educational tool for small suppliers – but re-evaluated as I thought it would be a shame to rush ahead. So instead, I’ve created a set of guiding principles to use going forward. They’re a synthesis of things I’ve learnt, heard and been reminded of over the residency.
Understand others’ values and challenges
This principle isn’t rocket science, but it’s also easy to overlook. Using ‘others’ sounds less formal than stakeholders, more egalitarian and could also apply to ecological stakeholders.
My research on supply chains began with contracting authorities and large suppliers, understanding their successes and barriers. One of the areas they need support is in understanding and supporting suppliers in lower tiers. At this stage it could be tempting to start prototyping educational and measurement tools for smaller suppliers, but it would be more beneficial to have conversations with them, to understand their values and how to problem-solve alongside them, making their perspectives the focus.
Help create ownership
Lots of organisations in supply chains are coming at net-zero from a compliance perspective, led by large buyer organisations that are further ahead and have set their own goals and Science Based Targets. ‘How and who benefits?’, a question asked by Dr Pierce Otlhogile-Gordon, is pertinent. There’s power in knowledge and expertise; that’s partly why we research and learn. But how might we be good stewards of that knowledge, share it, help others use and shape it?
Suppliers are partners in the path to net-zero. As designers we need to find out what they need to be able to take the helm and drive the change, make that, and help create an environment so those who show leadership profit from the solutions they create.
Question the degree of problem solving
Are solutions surface-level, supporting an unjust status quo? How imaginatively am I thinking about the possibilities to create change?
To flip the picture, a worst-case scenario supply chain would reinforce exploitation, extracting from and depleting the communities it demands resources from, using those resources wastefully. Are the solutions I’m creating or helping to create (especially as someone in an organisation coming in from the outside and given a licence to innovate) are upholding damaging and oppressive systems? If so, how can I come up with more impactful ideas?
Look at things relationally
Yes, carbon and greenhouse gasses are a big problem when it comes to climate change. But instead of focusing on measurement and data as the key to decarbonisation, what if we focused on the relational side of things to gain a greater understanding of the problem – and reframe the solutions we’re creating? After all, the carbon cycle is a set of atmospheric and geological relationships that’s out of balance, causing dangerous side effects.
In supply chains, where are the exchanges not mutually beneficial, or are exploitive? Who do I need to listen to and what infrastructure is needed to support an equitable transition? Whose perspectives are undervalued?
My assumption is that we have to be careful at the lower tiers where resources may be scarce and find ways to support those organisations or traders to profit from decarbonising their operations.
Subtract where possible
Instead of creating something new, can something that isn’t working be removed to achieve balance? This principle is inspired by landscape architect Jeremy Rye’s talk on rewilding, where he spoke about removing an overgrown invasive species to allow the ecosystem diversity to flourish. Instead of thinking of design as creating more products, more processes, more data, is there a way of pruning what’s already there?
I’m reflecting on how this principle applies to supply chains on the micro and macro level but don’t have any concrete thoughts just yet.
Don’t mistake the tools for the goal
More accurate data and measurement, better carbon accounting systems and appreciation of climate risk are going to be important levers on the path to decarbonising supply chains. But the goal isn’t measurement or data – it’s much bigger: the flourishing of humanity (individuals as well as the whole) in partnership with the ecosphere (and the communities of animal and plant life referred to in that word). And from a supply chain perspective, this means people being supported in livelihoods that enable them to live financially sustainable lives, bring them fulfillment and make a net-positive contribution to society.
After encountering service design while studying for an MA in Sustainable Development, Ruth joined a tech-for-good startup and has been designing and delivering digital tools that have social and environmental aims at their heart. Recent projects she’s worked on include the Social Value Exchange, which aims to put community needs at the heart of public procurement; and Match My Project, a place-based platform for community organisations to find in-kind support from businesses.