When the originators of blockchain, drones, the Internet of Things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI) were putting their heads together to develop the foundations for these advanced technologies, they probably weren’t thinking about how procurement could use them to cultivate responsible, sustainable supply chains.
But that’s exactly what’s happening as these and other disruptive technologies make their way into broader society. Pointing to unethical labor practices as one of the more reputation-damaging practices that organizations partake in, Thomasnet.com says disruptive technologies can help reduce these and other risks.
“IoT devices are being employed in a wide range of applications and industries—especially within the supply chain and logistics sphere—and a well-thought-out compliance plan for suppliers, paired with real-time monitoring technology, allows businesses to rest assured that no illegal or unethical actions are underway,” Thomasnet.com points out in “Creating a More Ethical, Sustainable Supply Chain.” “Companies can then pass along this peace of mind to their customers.”
The same goes for blockchain, which can be used to increase transparency, providing verifiable, ethical standards. “Blockchain involves the use of distributed ledger, which is immutable,” the company notes. “Paired with IoT technology, this can create a network of monitored actions and transactions throughout a supply chain, in a record that cannot be readily falsified or manipulated.”
That’s good news for procurement professionals who are being asked to do more with less, and right when regulatory compliance, supply chain sustainability, human rights, and myriad other related issues are all top-of-mind for most organizations. For example, Thomasnet.com says that many companies are creating corporate social responsibility (CSR) plans and utilizing the Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) app, Comply Chain, which works companies through an eight-step process to reduce the risk of forced labor within their supply chain.
With more consumers buying products that don’t contribute to the destruction of the planet or the suffering of people and animals, procurement is also keeping an eye on environmental sustainability. With the world’s e-waste levels growing at an alarming rate, for example, electronics buyers are particularly well-positioned to help reduce those numbers.
Thomasnet.com says various technologies can help increase overall efficiency and sustainability. Some companies, for example, are using IoT systems that monitor crops individually—just watering and feeding them when it is effective to do so. “Other businesses utilize IoT and blockchain to decrease power and water consumption in other ways, sometimes even using AI to automate high-efficiency tasks,” it reports. “These may be as simple as turning off machines or even adjusting temperature conditions within a factory.”
Also relevant for electronics buyers is the increased focus on conflict minerals in the supply chain—yet another area where advanced technologies can help detect and mitigate potential problems. Comprising the metals tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold that are the derivatives of the minerals cassiterite, columbite-tantalite, and wolframite, respectively, conflict minerals are extracted from different locations around the world, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
In “How Can We Use Artificial Intelligence to Help Us Fight Corruption in The Mining Sector?,” Global Witness notes that while gaining access to reliable data on mineral extraction and trade is challenging, the use of drones and satellite imagery could help pinpoint suspect mining activity. “This data could be used to verify official statistics and flag discrepancies, or as proxies where no other statistics exist,” the publication notes, “and thus be an important tool for holding the mining sector [accountable].”
Putting Tech to Work
Used responsibly, satellite imagery can also help companies identify risks in their supply chains, Global Witness continues, including discrepancies between the location of mines and export statistics to look out for cross-border smuggling. It points to AI and machine learning (ML) as two more tools that have the potential to help develop more sustainable supply chains. On satellite images, for example, “computer algorithms can now be trained to look for specific markers in images that are either too subtle for a human to identify or would take too long for them to see.”
As technology continues to proliferate and improve, expect to see more of it being put to use in the name of developing a more sustainable environment- and human-friendly supply chains. Whether it’s used to identify potential risk suppliers, measure carbon footprints, guarantee sustainable sourcing practices, or enable better procurement-supplier collaborations, any advanced technology that can help ensure a safer and more sustainable supply chain is good technology.