Thursday, September 20, 2007

Speaking sustainability, day 5

Deep into our sustainability program, I have to say there might be something to this business school outlook. Hmmm....

How many people find supply chain management to be a sexy topic? Well, now I know better, and I can tell you that supply chains are sexy. What's the big lesson from studying supply chain management? The innovators for business success are also the likely innovators for anything else, including sustainability. Wanna find a partner for a sustainability project? Look for a sustainability partner among the business winners, and try to turn them into sustainability winners. Belive it? Well you should believe it.

Too often, we environmentalists find our favorite conservation partners among the underdogs of the economy, the "little guy" who is being crushed by competition. Why do we like underdogs? We tend to believe the stories, that they're pursuing sustainable practices and being slaughtered by ruthless unsustainable business practices.


I've been worrying about this question for a couple of years, and I'm learning things this week that reinforce my view that conservation advocates need to focus on the winners of the capitalist competition.


Two things. The winners are the ones with the ability to change the world. If they adopt new practices, they can influence a whole business ecosystem of suppliers and customers.

Also, the winners are the ones with the entrepreneurial energy to innovate. If they innovate to make money, then they can innovate for sustainability. So what about the people who are losing the economic competition? Adding sustainability to their operation isn't going to turn them into winners.

Is that just a ruthless, cutthroat attitude? Assuming that capitalism is good? No, it's a realistic view of what it takes to make change in the fisheries production system. Change will come from influential people who want to tackle big problems, and have the ability to turn ideas into viable solutions...the winners of the business competition.

OK, maybe it's not so simple, but I still think it's a mistake to look among the little guys for most of our conservation partners. Look at me, I'm really in business school now.


Unknown said...

Ahhh! This is the struggle we all deal with when we walk into a Whole Foods these days. It's become the Organic Walmart. I don't know what it is about me that wants to buy products, promising to be produced in sustainable means, from markets that have one label (365) throughout the store. I think it’s just the taste that Corporate America has left in my mouth, a bitter, "this is your only choice" taste. Are the big guys, or the "winners", really looking out for the cause? Should government step in and make it easier for "little guys" to win? I don't know? All I know is that, as a consumer, my choices are mainly limited to what the big guys have to offer as “sustainable”. I really wish there was a way to enable small innovators to rise above the nuances of supply chain management, so sustainable practices could delineate from monopolistic (is this a word?) markets and be granted the selling power they may deserve.

Fromartz said...

Very interesting Mark and I tend to agree. Competitive interests are in a very good position to advance sustainability, but I would add that they need not do it alone. Small companies can bring good, authentic products/solutions to the mix as well, but the larger company does represent that choke point: the distribution channel.

The ethics/standards that they bring to their work in this position is key for these solutions, hence the debate over corporate greenwashing or real change.

Finally, recall that all big companies were once small and rarely does the big stand for long in a historical frame. Innovation often comes at the margin and smart companies realize that.

Blog on, BUT PLEASE write more on the intersection of NGOs and corporations. Very int'd in that, in cases it works and does not,


Hodad said...

nice blog chewswise
especially since chewing, throughly masticating our food, as opposed to 'stuffing it in' is the first real important step in digesting....FOOD!
especially fish,lol
thanks again Mark for your continuation in this series
one of the factors I will be implementing is supply chain management in artesanal fishing in Central America, with the time/date/fisherman/woman when the animal is removed from it's environment to the Chef to the table
many consumers fortunately these days are begging to be more aware how,why,who their food is getting to them
and in my case, the name of their person that is doing the fishing
December 1st, see you them Pacific is too rough now to really fish using our[Mr Fish and my self]'s system
good for surfing though!

Tracy Rouleau said...

Score again!!! Supply Chain is the absolute most underrated, misunderstood part of the business model. Supply chain is all about EFFICIENCY and RESULTS.

The underdogs CAN WIN, as long as they are quick, innovative (your word) and give the customer what he/she wants.

I have experience in this arena, worked as a Supply Chain Manager in a dot-com in the 90's, and then helped to co-found (in 2001) a very successful logistics/supply chain software company (

Now I have to admit, SC (that's Supply Chain) bored me, which is why I left and went back to grad school. But I always saw the possibilities of applying the concepts in the environmental arena.

From the Steelwedge website -

"Our [Fisheries] Planning and Performance Management solution helps [fishermen] accurately assess market demand, clearly align their customer, product, inventory, production and business plans and closely monitor operational, financial, and sales performance."

and I've always dreamed of going back to the company with an environmental customer!

Clearly you (and Stanford) are on the right track!

Mark Powell said...

Wow, great comments all. Thanks. My emphasis in talking about the winners is the surprise I'm finding in the values of working with winners, in contrast to the more traditional "small is beautiful" bias found among environmentalists.

I agree that small businesses often innovate and bring major new values to the seafood business or other industries. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Starbuck's was the innovative little company.

I guess my discovery and point is that size doesn't determine sustainability. I no longer subscribe to "small is beautiful." It's been a transition for me, I used to believe that.

Thanks for the prompt Sam, I think your request for more on the interesection of NGOs and corporations will be what I take out of this. So I will have more to say, hope it's helpful.