The Urgent Need for Resilient Systems

October 1, 2015
  • Tara Norton

    Former Managing Director, BSR

Not surprisingly, as BSR’s director of supply chain sustainability, I spend a lot of time thinking about global supply chains and the systems that get raw materials and products from all over the world delivered to somewhere else in the world. I think about the business relationships in those supply chains, and the transactions that occur among human beings along that chain to get them there.

Today’s supply chains have developed alongside human and technological innovations over the course of thousands of years, and this has turned our supply chains into complicated, sophisticated systems. The sheer volume of products and services, and the speed at which things move, is staggering.

Global supply chains have delivered tremendous benefits to humans. Just consider how our “cold chain” delivers necessary food and medicine to people everywhere, or the speed at which critical supplies can be accessed after a natural disaster, or the cultural benefits and equalizing nature of people everywhere having the same access to imported products from distant lands—all without the expense (and carbon impacts) of traveling.

That said, global supply chains are not flawless, and there are myriad examples of system failures that people like me and the business partners I collaborate with spend a great deal of time trying to improve. From clothing, to telephones, to oil and gas, to metals, to agricultural products, there is not a single supply chain we could collectively call a resilient system. This New York Times article about the complex global system of fish sourcing is one of my favorite pieces and illustrates that there is a clear opportunity to improve supply chains.

According to the Stockholm Resilience Center, resilience is “the long-term capacity of a system to deal with change and continue to develop.” The center uses the example of a forest ecosystem’s ability to withstand storms or fires, and it describes a resilient society as one that can deal with “political uncertainty or natural disasters in a way that is sustainable in the long-term.”

This got me thinking about what constitutes resilience in one of business’ biggest systems: the global supply chain. Today’s supply chains are constantly being pushed to the limit due to population growth, world-record human migration, accelerating climate change, and increased demand for immediate access to products and services. At BSR, we think of a resilient supply chain as one that meets the short-term business imperative of delivering goods and services in a timely and cost-effective manner, in balance with a system that provides good jobs, climate-resilient and environmentally restorative practices, and fully traceable and transparent information. Despite our incredible technological progress and the significant efforts of sustainable supply chain professionals, meeting the short-term business imperative still often comes at the expense of people and the environment, which has a long-term effect on business success and sustainability.

Supply chains are not the only big systems that business relies upon. Business also depends on human systems, economic systems, production systems, and more. For business to thrive, we need to think very hard about the way these systems operate, and how we can improve them. What do we know today that can help us create more resilient systems that will support sustainable business and sustainable life?

At the BSR Conference 2015, we will explore the ideas around resilient systems in a special track. During these sessions, we will reimagine systems, giving space to innovative thinkers and those of us who want to push the boundaries of our day jobs in a safe setting. We will be looking at supply chains, society and human development, the circular economy, manufacturing, and global investment. Across functions and industries, we have a responsibility to consider new ideas and think about how we can change our systems for the better.

Join us to rethink systems to make them resilient. The more the merrier. If not us, then who?

See more information about the BSR Conference 2015 Resilient System track

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