When asked what sustainability is, it is sometimes difficult to define. If you are in charge of overseeing a supply chain, you need to ensure that anything unsustainable is kept out of your supply chain. Everybody now has a video camera in their pocket and a video of something bad can instantly go viral.

There are three major components of sustainability: 
1. Environmentally sound practices 
2. Social responsibility (including animal welfare) 
3. Economic viability (each member of the supply chain has to be able to make a living)

This definition or a very similar one is on many sustainability websites. Sometimes there are tradeoffs between the three components of sustainability that can lead to debates about different practices. An example is the current debate facing the poultry industry about transitioning to slower-growing chickens to improve animal welfare. From an environmental sustainability viewpoint, this would be bad because 20 percent to 25 percent more grain would be required to feed the chickens. Compared to 10 years ago, broilers have less lameness and better mobility. I have visited farms and have seen the improved broilers. The tradeoff may be a 5 percent to 8 percent increase in feed.

It may be easier to define what is not sustainable. Most people who are interested in sustainability can agree there are certain bad practices that should be stopped. A manager must take steps to prevent obvious bad practices. The first step is for top managers to get out of the office and visit different parts of their supply chain. In many different industries, the worst problems occur when a product passes through multiple layers in a supply chain. Global supply chain disasters, such as deadly contamination of pharmaceutical products, or hundreds of people killed in a clothing factory, occurred in segmented global supply chains.

Defining unsustainable

There must be clear guidelines on practices that are not sustainable. This is required when a supplier is removed from an approved supplier list for not complying with sustainability standards.

Obvious bad practices that violate environmental responsibility:

  • Cutting down rainforest to grow crops or livestock;
  • Draining manure or farm chemicals directly into a river;
  • Depleting an aquifer that is not renewable;
  • Depleting stocks of wild fish;
  • Damaging land due to over application of manure or other fertilizers (the right amount is beneficial); and
  • Poor grazing programs where pastures are stripped (well-managed grazing programs can improve pastures).

Obvious bad practices that violate social responsibility include:

  • Abusive handling of livestock or poultry (if it would look bad online, don’t do it.) Handling of animals is better today, however in the last two years, there have been several undercover videos depicting severe animal abuse.
  • Filthy animal housing with high ammonia levels;
  • Transporting unfit animals that should have been euthanized on the farm (see pork and beef industry guidelines);
  • Serious food safety violations which result in death; and
  • Serious worker safety violations where a worker dies or loses a limb.

Obvious bad practices violating economic responsibility:

  • Failure to pay suppliers;
  • Deliberately mislabeling lower quality products with labels for higher quality products; and
  • Payments to contract farmers that are too low for them to obtain basic needs