As Earth Day Turns 50, Digital Networks Place Business At The Forefront Of A Sustainable Future – Forbes

Written by Chris Haydon

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, imposing illness on millions and lock downs on billions around the world, we’re reminded of the ever-present tension that exists between nature and humankind. At the same time that entire nations shelter in place, we see pollution receding in our seas and in our skies. But a global health crisis shouldn’t be a necessary precursor to healing the environment, should it?

Before the coronavirus began its destructive path, disruption took another form in my native Australia when devastating bush fires swept across the land. The fires prompted many of us to reexamine how we interact with the natural world. How, in our daily activities, can we all contribute toward a cleaner, more sustainable environment?

As a business leader, I believe technology holds part of the answer.

When businessman-turned-activist John McConnell founded Earth Day in 1970, his concern for the planet had grown out of his work in the plastics industry, which by then had already contributed to substantial ocean pollution. Fifty years later, non-biodegradable refuse continues to wreak havoc on the open seas. But solutions today are emerging from a source the late environmentalist might not have predicted: industry itself. Through cloud-based networks that link together millions of buyers and suppliers, businesses are gaining extraordinary visibility into supply chains and asserting accountability over sourcing decisions previously seen as far removed. By harnessing this newfound transparency, they’re beginning to turn back the tide of maritime clutter.

This trend accompanies an ongoing shift in businesses’ role in society. Increasingly, an enterprise’s primary stakeholders,  customers, investors, employees, and the communities in which it operates, demand not only that it adhere to ethical and sustainable business practices in line with their deeply held values, but that its trading partners do so as well. These efforts can take many forms, such as ensuring that a supplier’s operations remain free from forced labor, that it complies with local regulations involving worker safety, that it extracts raw materials and disposes of waste in an environmentally responsible manner, that it awards contracts to historically underrepresented groups of people, or that it abides by any number of other socially relevant criteria.

Many corporate stakeholders today echo McConnell’s inspiration for Earth Day a half-century ago: reducing the surfeit of plastics awash on land and sea. According to McKinsey, over 80% of greenhouse-gas emissions in most consumer-good categories occur in supply chains. Many of these involve plastics. But so detailed is the level of transparency afforded by a digital procurement network that a manufacturer can seek out reusable and recycled materials in lieu of single-use components.

When a company takes a holistic view of spend across its procurement and supply chain networks, it gains the insights necessary to make conscientious decisions with the environment in mind. Johnson & Johnson is a leading example of this, touting initiatives like Project Phoenix, which helps recycling cooperatives in emerging markets improve their operations, develop a stronger social infrastructure and create a sustainable market for their materials, which are part of J&J’s supply chain.

Another example of such progress can be seen in a recent move by Microsoft; who earlier this year set a bold goal to be carbon negative by 2030, launching an aggressive program to cut its carbon emissions by more than half by 2030 – both for direct emissions and for its entire supply and value chain. By making carbon reduction an explicit aspect of procurement, Microsoft shows just how critical supply chains are to achieving sustainable development.

Digital networks are enabling businesses to align their brand values not only with the ethical and sustainable business practices of their trading partners, but also with international efforts to combat hunger, provide clean water and sanitation, promote health and well-being, and create a greener tomorrow. The United Nations, through its Global Compact corporate sustainability initiative, has enlisted the technology industry’s expertise in implementing 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which enshrine a set of principles aimed at advancing human rights, labor conditions, anti-corruption and better protecting the environment.

By tracking progress toward these objectives through the transparency of digital networks, all organisations can run their operations in a manner both responsible and mutually reinforcing. The fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day presents a timely reminder that a greener, more sustainable future lies within reach through persistence, passion, and procurement with purpose.

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By Maria Ordonez
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