**The views expressed herein should be taken as those only of the author and not of Wharton, IGEL or the University of Pennsylvania**
Perhaps the most surprising part of the inaugural Wharton Supply Chain Conference was how “sustainability” was only mentioned twice: when Jim Miller, VP of Worldwide Operations of Google, mentioned that consumers must care and be informed before sustainability issues are taken care of; he used the example of his wife still buying an Iphone after the Foxconn debacle although she was against the labor practices. The second was when Randall Lovorn, VP of Commercialization and Innovation at PepsiCo, briefly mentioned his firm’s sustainability practices, and its new project of a net-zero waste plant in Arizona that gives back energy to the grid.
Still, panelists discussed sustainable issues indirectly, especially the flexibility and fitness of current supply chains. Jim Miller of Google explained that their firm sees supply chain interruptions as business opportunities; with the recent flood in Thailand that damaged integral parts to their microprocessors, the company purchased about a quarter of a billion dollars worth of microprocessors which not only allowed them to outlast any delays and to buy at very low wholesale prices, but also to charge large prices to competitors who were not so savvy. Jim emphasized that it’s important to know not only where your components are coming from, but also where the components inherent in those systems are sourced.
In the second panel, Kenneth Shaw, VP of Supply Chain Management at Boeing, indicated his surprise that Google faces similar issues as Boeing in terms of Dodd-Frank Act requiring stricter sourcing standards. Kenneth explained it as “sand in, satellite out”, a phrase he learned at a previous job with Homeland Securities, that each part of the final product must be accounted for, starting from the minerals in he ground. Unfortunately, although this “starting from the cradle” approach was mentioned, none of the panelists discussed the end of life of their products “the grave”.
Finally, in the last panel on E-Commerce, William Kowal, Director of Fulfillment at Amazon.com, discussed the need for a larger transportation network for Amazon.com to meet the needs and expectations of its customers. He repeatedly referred to the company’s 43% growth, through programs such as FBA (Fulfilled by Amazon) and Amazon Locker, and the fact that Amazon had “broken” UPS three times during peak usage last year. Craig Adkins of Zappos echoed these sentiments, implying that Amazon may need to create its own system for a sustainable business model, rather than relying on outside firms.
In all, the conference presented a big picture view of supply chain operations at some of the nations’ largest firms, including Google, DuPont, and Amazon.com. A few company representatives, including those of Boeing and Astrazeneca, mentioned how some of the issues weren’t on the table a decade ago; hopefully in the future, the same can be said for environmentally and socially sustainable supply chains.