Stanford University’s Responsible Supply Chains Conference Recap

I attended Stanford University's third annual conference on socially and environmentally responsible (SER) supply chains last Thursday, May 21.  The conference has doubled in size every year since 2006 and promises to be larger next year.  A full day of presentations and panels from executives at leading companies such as Cisco, Intel, Safeway, Disney, HP, Verite, and more made for a multitude of perspectives and approaches to the topic of sustainability in supply chains. 

A few general observations from the conference:

  • The realm of social and environmental responsibility in supply chains is still very nascent.  It seems each company, industry, and the business world as a whole is still establishing definitions for what it means to be socially and environmentally responsible.  This dialogue, of course, is very important and will likely set the stage for a future platform to act from. 
  • It seems greater success can be had when companies address issues of social and environmental responsibility in their supply chains from an industry approach.  This leads to a greater probability of standardization and leverage in the supply chain, which in turn, based upon presenters' comments, seems to foster faster and more widespread change in the supply chain as a whole.  Some critical factors for success gleaned from many of the presentations, despite the industry of a given company, are the following:
    • The involvement and commitment of top, C-level, management
    • The combination of efforts across companies within a given company
    • Honest and free communication within companies and with competitors (a very scary and challenging proposition for many companies)
    • A sharing of best practices and communication amongst shared suppliers within the industry (meaning–get your suppliers to talk and share with each other to benefit everyone as a whole)
    • Outside and independent verification to create transparency and accountability

A few other interesting takeaways:

  • Cooperation amongst several companies within an industry to acheive industrywide social and environmental responsibility seemed to be easier to accomplish in B2B industries, and industries that did not generally "face" consumers or receive consumer and/or watchdog scrutiny.  Those companies that had more of a B2C orientation viewed supply chain SER as more of a competitive differentiator, and thus were less inclined to share information and resources with others. 
  • I expect the conference will double in size and notoriety next year.  This is an issue the business world has only begun to explore.  I found myself wanting more nitty gritty dialogue from the conference, but as companies move down the path from the general questions of definition and the surface levels of implementation, I am sure the dialogue and topic will become much more comprehensive, heated, and fruitful.

 By Ashton Udall