Blog post

Addressing the environmental challenge through sustainable supply chains

How do we protect the environment and become more sustainable while continuing to grow the economy and enjoy the benefits of our industrialised society? Jose Arturo Garza-Reyes, Professor of Operations Management and Head of the Centre for Supply Chain Improvement at the University of Derby, explores what steps businesses are already taking in their operations and supply chains, and what more needs to be done.

By Professor Jose Arturo Garza-Reyes - 9 January 2024

In today’s world, many of us are able to enjoy the benefits created by industrialisation – the resulting economic growth and technological developments have contributed to advances in infrastructure, education, manufacturing, telecommunications, engineering, and healthcare systems, among many others. For many societies, this has brought prosperity and improved living standards.

These benefits come at a cost, however. Increases in production and the use of natural resources are linked to environmental degradation and climate change, the greatest threats facing our planet. To address this critical challenge, governments and organisations around the world have taken action by setting a number of sustainability targets such as reducing carbon emissions by 25% by 2025, generating 50% of electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and sending zero waste to landfill by 2030. 

Greening supply chains

Supply chains have started to meet the challenge by adapting traditional quality management, production management, supply chain management, logistic management, circular economy and lean management principles and tools in their efforts to become more environmentally sustainable. Quality management principles have evolved into environmental systems and standards such as ISO 14001. And traditional production systems, as well as supply chain and logistics management operations, have been adapted to incorporate factors such as energy conservation, design for the environment, raw material reduction, adoption of clean technologies, recycling, reusing, etc.

As these factors start to become more embedded, we have seen the emergence of concepts such as cleaner production, green supply chain management and green logistics management. Numerous companies across various industries have embraced these initiatives as part of their commitment to environmental sustainability. Unilever has committed to making its supply chain more sustainable by sourcing raw materials responsibly; IKEA is aiming to achieve 100% renewable energy use across its operations by investing in renewable energy; UPS is investing in a green fleet, incorporating alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicles; while Apple is emphasising product recycling and reducing the environmental impact of its products


Other concepts and initiatives that have been used by supply chains to address the environmental sustainability challenge include circular economy and lean management. Circular supply chains help minimise waste, promote several UN Sustainable Development Goals, and optimise the use of resources. One example is Dell, which operates a closed-loop recycling programme where it collects old electronics, disassembles them, and uses the materials to manufacture new products.

Here at the University of Derby, researchers in our Centre for Supply Chain Improvement have developed a Circularity Measurement Tool, which helps manufacturing SMEs to assess the level of circularity within their manufacturing processes. Our experts have also been working on a project to investigate how the UK rail sector can embed circular economy practices into its operations.

Adapting traditional approaches

Elsewhere, the traditional lean management philosophy developed by Toyota in the 1950s has also been adapted to incorporate green initiatives. Lean management is a systematic approach to managing and improving processes within an organisation. It originated from the manufacturing sector, particularly the Toyota production system, but has since been applied across various industries and sectors. Its primary goal is to eliminate waste, improve efficiency, and enhance overall value for customers.

The adaptation of this approach has now led to the concepts of Green Lean and Green Lean Six Sigma. These are approaches that integrate principles of environmental sustainability with the Lean and Lean Six Sigma methodologies to not only enhance operational efficiency and reduce waste, but also to minimise the environmental impact of a company’s operations, products and services. Working with colleagues at the Universidad de Monterrey in Mexico, I developed a lean-based tool, the Sustainable Transportation Value Stream Map (STVSM), which was tested in a world-leading logistics organisation in Monterrey. The results showed that using a tool like this along with Green and Lean approaches is an effective way to improve both the operational efficiency and environmental performance of road transport operations.

More to do

There is no doubt that much progress has been made by supply chains in their efforts to become more environmentally sustainable.

My own research has explored operating practices in the manufacturing sector in Thailand, China, Morocco and Brazil, among others. Results are promising, showing that steps are being taken to improve environmental performance, although in some cases there was a clear need for more investment and training to enable fully implementation of sustainable approaches.

There is much more to do. It is vital that companies not only continue embracing these concepts, principles and practices but also share examples of best practice and encourage their use throughout their supply chain. Collaboration with industry partners, NGOs, and government agencies is needed to address broader environmental challenges and adopt innovation and integrating technologies that could help facilitate the transition towards more environmentally sustainable operations.  

Maintaining the momentum will need, among others:

These are just a few of the many ways in which we can work together to make our supply chains more sustainable – collaborating is the best chance we have to support a thriving economy without further damaging our planet.

You can find out more about my research into sustainable supply chains at my inaugural lecture on Wednesday 17 January 2024.

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About the author

Professor Jose Arturo Garza-Reyes

Professor Jose Arturo Garza-Reyes
Professor of Operations Management and Head of the Centre for Supply Chain Improvement

Jose Arturo Garza-Reyes is a Professor of Operations Management and Head of the Centre for Supply Chain Improvement at the University of Derby. He is actively involved in industrial projects, combining his knowledge, expertise and industrial experience in operations management to help organisations achieve excellence in their internal functions and supply chains.

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