What are supply chains and why do they matter?

How can we be sure that the food we buy and the clothes we wear aren't doing more harm than good? Sustainability Analyst Clare Oxborrow explores how supply chains can negatively impact people and planet and why the UK needs a new law to hold companies to account for damage they cause.
  Published:  10 May 2022    |      2 minute read

Simply put, a supply chain is the journey between a product’s ingredients or origins and the consumer. It can involve a number of different stages, such as growing and sourcing raw materials, manufacture, shipping and so on. Supply chains can involve many different actors, from farmers and foresters to companies trading commodities and those making and selling everyday items. 

Some products have incredibly short supply chains, such as the food sold in farmers shops to local people and passers-by. Other products will have supply chains that are very long, complex and hard to trace.

The environment and supply chains

Nowadays, supply chains that span oceans and continents are the norm. Your trousers might be made by workers in Turkey from cotton grown in India, and the chicken and pork on supermarket shelves will have come from animals fed on soy  shipped in from Brazil or elsewhere in South America.

The problem is, the production of everyday items like food, clothes and electronics can often have a devastating impact on the environment and on the livelihoods of local communities and workers, both in the UK and overseas. And these impacts are hidden within the supply chains, where companies often operate without proper scrutiny.

For example, it took a Friends of the Earth investigation in 2019 to find that Co-Op, Morrisons, Waitrose, Iceland and Lidl were all selling corned beef from a Brazilian company (JBS) that has been repeatedly linked to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

Deforestation in the Amazon. Half of picture is pristine forest, half cleared flat.
Deforestation in the Amazon
Credit: istock

The human impact of supply chains

The sourcing of ingredients and manufacture of products can also have a devastating impact on people – from the communities forced off their land to make way for soy plantations and cattle ranches in Paraguay, to factory workers in Bangladesh and China made to produce clothing and smartphones in poor and unsafe conditions.

For instance, a Transform Trade investigation in 2019 found a UK agribusiness company involved in land grabbing in Liberia for the production of palm oil. Communities from 5 villages were pressured to sign over their land rights in exchange for the promise of jobs and infrastructure like schools, which  never materialised.

How can we improve supply chains?

Powerful companies control and profit from their supply chains, facilitating demand for meat, timber and cheap food and fuel by consumers in the UK and around the world, often at the expense of people and the planet.

Voluntary measures have failed to stop environmental degradation and human rights abuses. We urgently need clear, mandatory standards  to reign in the companies behind much of this devastation.

Friends of the Earth is joining forces with other charities, activists and trade unions to campaign for a new UK law that would hold companies, banks and public bodies to account for failing to prevent any socially and environmentally damaging impacts caused by their activities. The proposed Business, Human Rights and Environment Act would also ensure companies are held liable, and communities can seek redress, when harm occurs.