Sustainability loses a voice

Sustainability loses a voice

This week Dr Stephen Stokes died following a five-year battle with motor neurone disease (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He and I worked together at AMR Research where he pioneered a sweeping body of thinking, writing and influence on sustainability in the global supply chain. His work continued at Gartner until fairly recently when he finally lost the ability to communicate. The loss to family and friends is profound. The loss to our profession is a shame.

50 years of saving the planet

The general idea of sustainability started with publication of the book Silent Spring back in 1962 and is marked by such milestones as the first Earth Day in 1970, the founding of the Rainforest Alliance in 1986, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and Al Gore’s 2006 release of the film documentary An Inconvenient Truth. More than 50 years of work has gone into figuring out how to accommodate our expectations of the good life without ruining the planet that provides it.

I remain an optimist and applaud the good work done by many SCM World members in reconciling this puzzle. Unfortunately, the time is here to take it all up another level.

Which brings me back to Stokes. Those who knew him will recognise the extraordinarily agile mind and relentless zeal he brought to the game. He was a brilliant earth scientist with dozens of scholarly publications on topics including thermo luminescence, dune migration and sedimentary geology while a Professor at Oxford University. He then went on to earn an MBA in New Zealand while doing environmental consulting for mining companies before being lured (by me) to Boston and AMR Research in 2007.

At AMR the mission was to bring planet-scale thinking about sustainability to the supply chain crowd whose daily routine included dispatching trucks, ships and aircraft as well as buying, moving and converting billions of tonnes of raw material, packaging and waste. Back then most companies approached sustainability as a separate staff function with high visibility, but minimal power. Little by little, however, supply chain leaders started to assume responsibility for sustainability, and even as the general public and press lost interest in “green”, the momentum kept building.

Time to think big

Today, the urgency of these issues is working its way back to the top of our agenda as fresh water shortages coincide with rising levels of salt water and extreme weather goes from prediction to reality. The problems are getting worse and yet those best equipped to solve them are too often demonised by naïve or cynical scolds and watchdogs.

The voice that we need most is the credible, independent expert who understands not only the science, but also the money, the mechanics and the emotion of it all. Stokes was such a voice.

Stokes was the first person to point out to me that water can’t actually run out, but that it can be unavailable or unusable, and that the best approach was to collaborate locally with water-intensive businesses to manage its use. I’m happy to see Coca-Cola working on this problem alongside the WWF in a real-life example of this.

He also said that global warming is really just a big engineering problem and that the best people to deal with it are the oil companies that know most about the technologies involved in managing hydrocarbons. I’m happy to see Shell working with the British government on carbon sequestration in Aberdeenshire as another example of collaboration for the greater good.

Stokes knew what it was going to take to really deliver sustainability and, as an independent voice, was well positioned to broker dialogue between players whose heritage might have suggested antagonism rather than alliance.

Most important social & environmental issues for supply chain

Data from our most recent CSCO survey shows that our top sustainability concerns are still pretty small scale, with health and safety and product integrity way outstripping the big planetary issues like carbon emissions and water scarcity.

I can’t blame anyone for making sure their own house is in order before trying to save the world, but someone needs to think big if we’re going to make it.

Stephen Stokes will be missed.

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Author Kevin O'Marah

Chief Content Officer, SCM World

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