From Cradle to Cradle: Understanding Sustainable Supply Chain

Many green building programs put a heavy emphasis on not only the sustainability of a building once it is built, but increasingly so on the sourcing and management of building materials in an environmentally responsible way. Sustainable Supply Chain (SSC), sometimes referred to as “cradle-to-cradle,” is the standard term to reference this process. But, what does it mean?

Circular Sustainable Supply Chain

Circular Sustainable Supply Chain Image via

What is a Sustainable Supply Chain?

SSC embodies a cyclical approach to manufacturing that considers both the recovery and reuse of materials. This supply chain’s reverse logistics strives to continually sustain itself by returning materials to the land in either a safe molecular form or by continually reusing those materials for future products. Fully developed SSC’s consider sustainability for every contributor at every step – from design to manufacture, transportation, and storage to eventual end-of-life with a goal of re-use, recycling, or low impact disposal. This forward-thinking perspective serves to reduce waste, promote ethical and socially beneficial manufacturing practices, minimize or eliminate adverse health impacts, and enable compliance with increasingly stringent regulations.

In addition to giving you the warm fuzzy feeling that comes with reducing the environmental impact of product manufacturing, utilizing Sustainable Supply Chain materials has several business benefits. For corporations, it can help generate positive environmental and social impacts, and improve brand reputation, affecting numerous positive outcomes from increased sales to lowering operational costs. It can also simplify compliance efforts and mitigate regulatory risk.

The Cost of Materials on a Macro Level

trees-supply-chainUnlike the conventional supply chains, the SSC has a broader view of the system that internalizes operational costs and ultimately converts them into sources of value. A simple example would be an internalized cost for deforestation for wood and paper-based products. Although a tree can be a renewable resource, the conventional method often results in deforestation, transforming our theoretically renewable resource into one that is not. By implementing a cost for deforestation, the renewability of trees as a resource can by maintained and the negative impacts on biodiversity can be mitigated. Internalized costs such as these are pertinent to closed loop mechanics.

The Challenges of Sustainable Supply Chain Adoption

Managing the Supply Chain

The success of the SSC and subsequent benefits are intrinsically rooted in effective management which can be complex to navigate. Companies must actively include suppliers and service providers in the “greenification” of the supply chain to improve sustainability. Participants of the SSC must also collaborate with one another to find better ways to address environmental degradation, rising energy and raw material prices, and discrepancies between labor/environmental standards in one country and legal and consumer expectation in another.

Developing Sustainable Supply Chain Standards

For SSCs to flourish, widely-recognized industry standards and programs must be adopted. There is a strong need to regulate the advertising, labeling, and promotion of genuine sustainable practices to differentiate them from the superficial and misleading promotion of falsely-labeled green products known as “greenwashing.”

Sustainable Supply Chain labels

Sustainable Supply Chain Labels and EcoLabels

Businesses must decide what practices to adopt and what sustainability certifications/labels to pursue. There are many certifications/labels/declarations to choose from, and many more being added each year. Businesses must consider cost, ROI, and credibility of the label. There are some existing recognized labels that are leading the way, such as Cradle to Cradle, Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), Carbon Trust Reduction Label (CTRL), and Fairtrade. While these labels and others are making strides in the right direction, labeling SSC products is challenged by the complex and large scope of factors. A comprehensive and all-encompassing labeling system remains to dominate the industry.

Redeveloping supply chain methodologies takes time. It is a complete paradigm shift that involves widespread collaboration, a reprioritization of values, and incentivizing responsible behaviors. Incorporating SSC’s is not associated exclusively with green building programs; however they are helping to lead the way in this shift by enforcing a reliable set of standards and increasing the visibility of responsible product sourcing and management. And just as many of the sustainable building practices became more widespread and eventually mainstreamed because of these programs, it is our hope that so too will Sustainable Supply Chains.

Written by:

Alex Popp


Alex Popp, Sustainability Consultant

3 replies
  1. Avatar
    Taylor Bishop says:

    Thanks for the interesting read about sustainable supply chain when it comes to building materials. It’s good to know that companies have to actively include suppliers in the “greenification” of supply chain. It sounds like it’s important to try to have a good discussion with them so everyone can explore different options that are possible.

  2. Avatar
    George Julious says:

    Thank you for the interesting article. Internalising costs is a challenging task. In your example, what would the cost of deforestation be? What elements should it include?

    • Adam Yarnell
      Adam Yarnell says:

      Hi George, great question, though I think it would best be fielded by an ecological economist. Steven Winter Associates does not estimate costs, but we do offer whole-building life-cycle assessments (LCA) which calculate a building design’s environmental impact of its components. These LCAs use 6 metrics: Global warming potential (C02e), ozone depletion (kgCFC-11), acidification (moles H+ or kgSO2), eutrophication (kg nitrogen or kg phosphate), tropospheric ozone formation (O3eq), and depletion of non-renewable energy (MJ). It’s not a perfect analogue, but you might consider reviewing the life cycle assessment of softwood lumber published by the American Wood Council. The outputs from this and similar LCAs can then be more easily converted to monetary units (e.g. multiplying the global warming potential in CO2e by the current cost of Renewable Energy Credits). We hope you find this information useful!


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